Friday, August 13, 2010

No surprises

I've been in the process of re-reading This is Your Brain on Music, and I found myself wanting to underline this sentence when I came to it again:

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations.

That seems to me to be essentially true, at least in my own experience. I'm not sure I'd always call it an emotional "communication," per se (with something as vague as music, that metaphor can be taken too literally, I think), but whatever intense engagement I have with organized sound, much of it has to do with creative subversions of my preconceptions. I love the sense of disorientation that obtains when I don't understand what's going on in a new piece. And I love working to become more at ease with the weirdness, and making it my "new norm."

I'm sure other people -- maybe you're one of them -- listen in the same way. And yet, with each passing year, I become less and less convinced that this manner of listening is typical, even when it comes to die-hard music fans. On the contrary, I think most listeners, even serious listeners, are on a quest for more (and better instances) of the stuff that most accommodates their auditory comfort zone.

What else could explain the great care being taken not to challenge the listener in the following commentary? This is Anthony Dean-Harris, talking about his experience as a radio DJ, and specifically, a quandary over programming the new Nels Cline album into his show:

...anyone who truly thinks about a wide audience would think, “Would a person who is not completely invested in discovering every nook and cranny of this song or this entire album suffer through hearing this complicated, intellectually-challenging music for five or so minutes?”

If the "emotional communication" that we all supposedly prize in music really happens through the "systematic violation of expectations," I suspect that the listeners of this program (and, indeed, most radio) are not after emotional communication at all (since their DJs are not willing to violate their expectations for even five minutes).

I'm not trying to single out KRTU (Dean-Harris's station). This scenario is much more pervasive than that, and is a basic aspect of the "if you like... then you'll like" mentality of Music 2.0. (What is a music service like Pandora if not a systematic confirmation of expectations?) And the point is that Dean-Harris is probably right to be cautious, if the goal, first and foremost, is to build an audience.

The real question is this: what are audiences getting out of this relationship with familiarity? Validation? A sense of belonging?

I came across a Daniel Cavicchi essay recently that I think really nailed what music does for most listeners. Fans, Cavicchi argues, use their detailed knowledge of specific songs, artists, and genres

to shape their personal histories, to initiate friendships, to maintain family relations, to get through the day, to heal emotional wounds, and to create tangible community and fellowship.

When you look at it that way, whether music violates expectations or not is really beside the point. The important thing is how music is used.

EDIT: Jeff Albert has a great response to this discussion; you should read it. To me, this says it all:

“It is not our job as musicians to guess what people want to hear, it is our job to make the music that we hear, and do it honestly.”

Bingo. I need to remind myself of that more often.

[Photo credit: Vimages]


Jason Parker said...

I worked in radio for 20 years before chucking it to pursue making music instead, and i think you're essentially right. Most people don't what their expectations violated. This is indeed the reason radio and Pandora and the mainstream press go to great lengths not to do so. Your idea that people are looking for validation and community is the prevailing wisdom that is forever corroborated by focus groups and audience testing.

Thankfully there are plenty of people out there, if not the majority, who, like you, do enjoy being violated. Erm, well, you know what I mean... ;)

Anonymous said...

It's been awhile since I read that, but if I recall correctly, he was explaining how "violation of expectations" works *within* a song. For example, a deceptive cadence in a Bach chorale is gratifying to those who expected a tonic resolution.

The problem with Nels Cline or what have you is that most listeners aren't able to *establish* sonic expectations when listening to it, because it is too far from their palette of sonic understanding. This is true for many people with regards to jazz, as well. People don't usually want to be assaulted with unfamiliarity, they prefer to hear something that establishes expectations and then messes with them.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for the comments!

Alex, I'm confused by your clarification. Aren't expectations developed cumulatively? How would a listener be able to "start from scratch" with every new piece of music, only attending to the expectations set up by that piece? Are we not influenced in our expectations of any new work by everything else we have heard and formed opinions about? If you're surprised by a deceptive cadence in a given Bach chorale, isn't that because you've heard lots of other Bach chorales that end differently?

And why can't more listeners establish sonic expectations when listening to Nels Cline? It's not like there is no common ground with other music. A set of audio events occurs over a specific period of time. The textures are pretty familiar to anyone who listens to pop or rock. I don't get how even the most benighted listener would fail to at least understand it as an attempt at music -- and then evaluate it according to whatever other expectations they might have. (No plagal cadence? Fail! Or win, depending...)

One other thing to consider: I strongly suspect that nearly every component of a given "comfort zone" (except perhaps for the basic concept of a pulse) was at one point an unfamiliar idea for any listener. Maybe the real question is why does anybody ever stop developing new expectations?

Anonymous said...

I believe Jonah Peretti said that to appeal to "viralness" is to appeal to your target's pathologies. Replace "viralness" with "sellability"...

Neal - Sax Station said...

Hey Andrew,
Cool post.

I would think that people listen to music in different ways.

Musicians especially seem to have a certain perspective since they understand better how the music works. Probably some music enthusiasts have a similar understanding even if they don't play.

Someone listening to the radio might just want something relaxing to passively listen as they drive.

The violations of expectation I would think appeal a lot more to someone who is actively listening and wants to hear something fresh.

That being said, familiarity in the music, even if just in the beginning, seems to establish a connection with the listener.