Surprise

Scenario #1: You’re listening to a song you’ve never heard before, by someone you don’t know. It’s a nice song. Nice melody, nice lyrics, nice arrangement, nice voice. You hope the chorus and bridge won’t spoil the broth. They don’t. They are what you hoped they would be. A nice, comforting fit with the opening verse.

Scenario #2: You’re listening to a song you’ve never heard before, by someone you don’t know. It’s a nice song. Nice melody, nice lyrics, nice arrangement, nice voice. You hope the chorus and bridge will be as good. And then something really surprising and unexpected happens. Maybe a change to an odd meter, or a totally unexpected, but not awkward, modulation (change of key), or a complete change in orchestration (sampled whale songs, a saxophone quartet, what have you.)

The question then is, what, as a listener, is the scenario that is most likely to please you?

An example of scenario #1 might be the song by John Mayer (or something) I heard a couple of days ago watching the last Macworld keynote.

An example of scenario #2 that immediately springs to my mind is Franz Schubert’s chamber music. It is squarely rooted in the fashion of the times, but when you least expect it, he unleashes these incredible, totally unexpected modulations that are just unbelievably clever compositionally, totally make sense after the fact, and in my experience, increase the drama to a huge degree.

Another example of scenario #2 is the album “Not Going Anywhere” by Keren Ann which I can’t stop listening to. A couple of bars in, you think this is another one of those low-key, folk-pop acoustic guitar+soft female voice jobs. And yet every song on the album is full of surprising compositional twists and turns. There’s just that extra effort, she goes that extra mile on every song, and it’s just a total delight.

By now, you’ve figured out that I’m a sucker for scenario #2. It has been my experience however that even when the element of surprise is fairly minor, i.e. is still squarely within the “stylistic bounds” of the given genre (as in the examples above), most music fans, even connoisseurs, are generally put off. Put another way, in my experience, people prefer Mozart to Bach by a huge margin (or the Stones to Zappa, or U2 to the Residents, etc, etc.)

I’m also reminded of a definition of music found in an encyclopedia a long time ago (and used in a piece) which goes like this: “Music, being in time and not in space, is never comprehended at a glance, but always in a momentary present, connecting a remembered past with an imperfectly anticipated future”.

So put yet another way, I guess I like it when I anticipate wrong, and that many if not most listeners like to anticipate right!

My personal stake in this is simple.

As a listener, I find it hard to find music that doesn’t bore me (being a scenario #2 guy is truly a curse! ;)).

As a composer, no matter how hard I occasionally try to do a scenario #1 song, it always comes out as a #2. I actually think that my stuff is pretty easy to grasp, i.e. that isn’t radical in any profound way, but most of my listeners beg to differ.

For instance, the reviews I’ve gotten from fellow songwriters on GarageBand.com say my stuff is weird, strange, different, uncommercial, a “novelty act”. While some reviewers mean it as a compliment, many others definitely don’t, and I have even received some pretty nasty flames (someone litterally told me he hoped my house would burn down!). They could pick on my poor vocal skills or crappy production values, and they sometimes do, but that largely takes a back seat to the rest. (A complicating factor is that I tend to straddle genres, and that is often equated with incompetence, i.e. inability to do a proper [insert your favorite genre/subgenre here] piece. FWIW, I plead guilty!)

I’m used to this type of reaction after all these years, and while it puzzles me (again, my stuff isn’t that weird), I take it as a compliment because it means my stuff is original, which is a virtue in my book, and that I’m provoking surprise in my audience, something I would be grateful for as a listener.

So back to the (falsely naïve) question stated above. I can’t help wondering what others expect from the music they buy (or steal), and how they react to the expected-unexpected, at a gut and/or theoretical level.

14. January 2005 by sknob
Destination: Making Music | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. Pingback: sknoblog » Surprise, Surprise

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