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.