Patterns or consistency

I was recently talking about a Ted talk delivered by Steven Pinker. He commented on a number of things, including the idea that the human brain is wired for certain aesthetic preferences, particularly patterns. He argued that much of the highbrow art and music of the 20th century ignored these preferences, falling under the spell of the “blank slate” hypothesis — the idea that humans are born with no innate biases. As such, much of that art and music never caught on with the public.

As I noted, this makes a lot of sense in terms of atonal music (by composers such as Stravinsky, Webern.) It’s music without discernible patterns such as repeating rhythmic phrase, or recurring structures (like four chords over and over for a verse.) Pattern loving humans should be frustrated by atonal music’s lack of patterns, and thus one would predict that atonal music would be only appreciated by tiny crowds of music nerds — exactly what has happened.

However, I’m not quite sure that it’s patterns which humans have a preference for. I think a better term might be consistency. If I see a plant with several leaves, and all the leaves are green, then there is no real pattern, but it is consistent that all the leaves have the same color. And if there was one purple leaf, it would stand out (e.g. that’s the inconsistently leaf.) I would propose that for much of evolution people were analyzing the consistency of their natural surroundings and became wary of inconsistency (“don’t eat the purple leaf!”) and now we apply this preference for consistency to our art forms.

1 Response to “Patterns or consistency”


  1. John Saleeby

    Yeah, if you ever have an interesting blog entry we’ll really freak out!