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The Art of Expectation

I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio. I don’t know whether it was the overly generic pop music (pop music can be fun, just not when it’s overly generic…), or the fact that every other station plays pretty much the same music over and over (looking at you, Top 40 stations), but I think it was the lack of variety on the radio that finally pushed me to the glorious world that is Spotify Premium.

When I listen to a new artist, album, or song for the first time, there’s a certain level of active engagement as my mind tries to process and breakdown the music. It’s the kind of engagement you only get when you hear a new song for the first time – similar to the experience of reading a new book or watching a new episode of your favorite TV show. For most people, listening to a new song the first time is a very different experience than listening to that same song for the 100th time. But there is still a lot of good music out there that can be listened to endlessly – delivering a listening experience that’s as satisfying the 100th time as it is the first. In my not-so-humble opinion, the distinguishing factor between timeless legendary musicians and pop-star one-hit wonders is the ability to artfully play with the listener’s expectations.

Musical expectations are one of those weird things that are actually hard wired into our brains (or at least, into the brains of musicians). But even if you’re not a musician, most people can tell a good song from a bad one. There are some elements that are easy to identify, like the melody (good melodies tend to get stuck in your head more often) or the rhythm (you may find yourself tapping your feet to songs with catchier beats). Then there are the more subtle elements that you may miss on the first listen, but catch when you listen later on headphones or through a high-quality sound system. Once again, in my not-so-humble opinion, these subtle elements, like harmony, bass line, overtones, chord structure and key changes, are where the real flavor of the music resides.

For example, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is one of those genres that, at its musical cores, can capture several of these elements and more at once. EDM is just as much about the buildup as it is about the drop. What makes the listening experience fun the first time around for any song is the fact that you expect to hear something, and that expectation is either granted or denied. Sometimes you’ll hear something totally different – maybe the second chorus has some harmony, or maybe there was a key change at just the right place. Or, maybe you thought the beat was going to drop, but you actually busted out dancing too early because there were actually 8 measures before the drop instead of 4.

The point is, the more musical elements a musician can play around with, the more musical goodness there is for the listener to enjoy. Jazz, for example, can be a roller coaster for your brain, as melodies tend to be heavily improvised so the listener may never know what’s coming next. Conversely, some of the most famous guitar solos are so satisfying because they hit high notes rapidly, or venture outside of musical phrases that the listener has gotten used to. Some people enjoy remixes of songs more than the original version because a good remix will take some of those musical elements and completely warp it – maybe the few notes leading up to the drop are looped so that a drop is never experienced. The effect on the listener is a longing for more – a longing to complete that musical phrase, a longing that is not satisfied, yet still so satisfying to listen to.

For the same reasons that listening to new music can be so engaging, repetitive or overplayed music can also become tiresome. Even your favorite song could drive you up the wall if you had to listen to it 100 times on repeat. Chances are, by the 100th listen, you’ve memorized the melody, you’re comfortable with the rhythm, the harmonics and key changes are no surprise to you, you’ve learned to hear that subtle overtone of strings, or how the music changes pace. At some point, there are no surprises left to discover. There is nothing new for your brain to pick up on – you know exactly what will and will not happen. The very best songs are the ones that catch you off guard every time, no matter how often you’ve heard it – your ears will still feel that tremendous amount of satisfaction when the expectations are met. It’s almost like…music to your ears.

If you’re interested in further understanding the art of expectation in music, check out this playlist of eargasmic songs. The songs on this playlist and the artists behind them, in my not-so-humble opinion, artfully play with the listener’s expectations to create a first-time listening experience guaranteed to take your brain on a roller coaster. So sit back, relax, and prepare your ears for some musical satisfaction!

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