Thursday, February 14, 2013

Playing With Expectations (Part One)

One of the best ways to become better at making something is to study good examples of the thing(s) you admire in order to learn what makes them work.  If your goal is to build a better car, you could look at (by which I mean take apart!) good cars, and try to understand the function of each part as a way of learning how cars work.  If your goal is to become a better composer, you could study good compositions (by which I mean take apart!) in order to understand how they work.

In both cases, the objective of learning how things work is partly general interest (if you love something, learning more about it is its own reward), and partly self-interest (you are hoping to discover and understand aspects that you can borrow, improve, or otherwise modify in your creations).

An aspect I enjoy most about my job is that I get to analyze music on a regular basis for various courses that I teach. There are different types of musical analysis, but I think they all revolve around the fundamental question of how a composition works. Or, more generally, how does music work?

There is no single answer to this question — the reasons that any composition works are many, and different compositions work in different ways — but it seems to me that there is at least one thing common to all good music, and it is this (drum roll, please):
Good music plays with our expectations. 
(To enhance the dramatic effect of the above, play this short clip immediately!)

By "playing" with our expectations, I mean that the music sometimes does what we expect (and how does it do that?), and sometimes doesn't, and the ways in which expectations are created, fulfilled, and thwarted, constitute an essential part of the reason we are drawn to the music. Understanding how this works can be an extremely valuable skill for a composer.

It is easy to introduce unexpected elements to a composition, but this, by itself, does not produce compelling art. Really good compositions somehow set-up expectations and leave us guessing as to which will be fulfilled and which won't be, as we go along for the ride.  How do they do this?

More to follow in parts two and three.


10 comments:

Creative Corner said...

Interesting blog! I love music composition so I was very glad when I found out about this blog. I write about composers in my weekly series "Composer of the week". I'll probably write more about music composition later. :)

Chris Morrison said...

Some music may have a title clearly stating the intentions of the music and when heard with knowledge of this title, the emotion is easily conveyed. Conversely, music could have a more open ended title raising ambiguity in the music. This allows the listener to create their own experience and interpret the music how they see fit. Parallels can be drawn to a movie with more than one possible ending after its close. The composer like the filmmaker allows the listener to become part of the music giving you the choice for your experience. It is not one definite thing but could be many things to many people. There is no right or wrong answer.

Evan Harte said...

I definitly agree with you on this. Playing with expectations is a huge part of composition and can be the brick wall between good and not so good compositions. There are a few compositional techniques that I have recently added to my compositional style which I think help play with the listener's expectations. Set up a chord progression that seems like it's going somewhere expected, but at the right moment, throw a curveball at the listener by using a different chord than the expected. Another idea is to first introduce an idea or phrase. Then, repeat the phrase. But the second time, cut it short and dive into a "subito" new idea (with new dynamic). These are but a couple of ideas which can have cool effects while playing with the listener's expectations.

Robert Godin said...

I'd be curious to see the parallels and differences between musical expectations of different time periods. We do study them in Theory classes and History courses but it'd interesting to have a large list of sorts.

Luke said...

One aspect of music that has always interested me is how our brains cognitively process music. Our musical expectations grow with us from the time we are very young, and we learn what sounds "right or wrong" by listening to music every day. If we are constantly listening to music, which most people are in today's noisy world, we quickly become bored with music that always sounds the same and avoids exploiting any expectations. I find myself feeling unfulfilled when listening to pop music on the radio today, mostly because of the extreme predictability in the nature of the genre. This predictability is one of the defining characteristics of Western Classical tonal music, but yet hundreds of great composers still manage to find creative ways to play with our expectations. This is one of the most amazing things about great works, that they have a comfortable level of predictability with just enough surprises thrown in to make it worth listening to.

Brad said...

Playing with expectations is an art that suggests a certain degree of mastery in composition. It's always that one part in a piece that gets you so excited to hear/play it because it seems to come from nowhere, but perfectly so. It can be a turning point in a piece bringing intrigue, elation, subtle profundity...

Throwing curveballs is definitely essential to an interesting composition.

Josh Penney said...

I really believe that the best way for us composers to get better ideas is by understanding the music we enjoy, and doing at least some study on it.

One of my favourite composers is Eric Ewazen, a man still composing today. One of the reasons I love his compositions is because he has created a very unique style throughout his career, and also, his music is so fun to play. His writes amazingly for brass.

I have done very basic study on his music (most of it is by ear, while I'm playing it). Earlier on I thought this guy was simply a compositional Demi God of some sort, and his music was just good. However as I play more, I am finding out that his music is all based on expectation.

He often has a very prominent theme in his music (like most music does) but adds very precise details to dynamics and harmony, which keeps listeners on their toes. Constant use of subito pianos and modulations which can occurs in sections, or multiple times in a single phrase.

This gives me great ideas into how I can use expectation in my music, and makes me want to find other ways to use it as well.

Colin Bonner said...

Being able to play with expectations says great things about a composer who does if effectively. To be able to play with expectations, one has to also recognize understand familiar idioms--rhythmic, harmonic, I don't care, you choose--and then be able to creatively contort it. An example might be writing, a brilliant, complete 5 measure phrase that later can return as something 7 or 8 measures long still sounding organic and whole.
I say this because sometimes playing with expectations can be done not so well: hearing a soaring, diatonic violin melody interrupted by an amplified car crash 20x as loud may create a provocative piece but, to me, shows a bit less compositional thinking that might manifest itself in subtler details. An example might be having familiar even occur on a weak beat though when we last hear it, it was on a strong beat.
Of course there are countless ways to play with expectation but I'd argue that some display brilliant compositional control, while others may show some compositional confusion.

Josh Penney said...

I definitely agree with this. Obviously music that is the same thing over and over again will get very boring, whereas music that is changing too rapidly is hard too keep up with. I find that my problem is trying to balance the two. Sometimes I'm a little weary of playing with expectation too much because I don't want me music to be too out there. I also find sometimes the compositional process doesn't help. We'll sit down at a piano and plunk out a motive in a lot of different ways to try and create interest. I often find engaging in this process alone can give me the illusion that an idea is getting boring, whereas when a person listens to it once, they won't hear the 100 times I've plunked away at it. Trusting my own intuition is something that's a little bit difficult to judge in getting this balance.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

The listener should never leave feeling that they are smarter than the composer. If the listener anticipates every turn and predicts every resolution, theywill leave feeling cheated; after all, they could have written the piece themselves! On the other hand, if a listener leaves with the perspective that the composer is smarter than their audience, or thinks they are smarter than their audience, it is just as dissatisfying. If the listener's expectations are never fulfilled, or if expectations are not created in the first place, the listener can never find solid ground in the piece; nothing can be particularly surprising because the listener has no basis of comparison. The result is an unhappy audience who either feels that they were not intelligent enough to understand the piece, or that the composer is condescending or a charlatan. From a listening perspective, the greatest pieces are those that create a meeting of minds, the composer's skill and vision matched by the listener's understanding and interest. In such pieces, the composer creates excitement through the uncertainty of whether expectations will be fulfilled, thwarted, or inverted. Fulfilment rewards the audience's attention, inversion respects their intelligence, and thwarting keeps them on their toes. The result is an audience who leaves satisfied, feeling that they were treated with a glimpse of the mind of a composer whose knowledge of their craft permits them to guide their audience through a meaningful and interesting experience, rather than resorting to laziness in the form of endless repetition or unmotivated shock tactics.