On Expectations in Music

I remember a conversation I was having with a couple of friends a few years ago about a particular jazz(-esque) artist (I honestly can’t remember who it was). One friend was a big fan of their interesting take on jazz. The other, not so much. When asked why he wasn’t as into them, he mentioned his experience seeing them live. He had heard this artist was particularly good, and so went to the jazz venue in the area to check them out. The house lights dimmed and the set began quietly and subtly, building slowly. He expected that they would break out into some kind of swing number eventually. But it never came. Their entire set was strange and ambient, tangentially related to his idea of jazz. He was rather disappointed; he came there to hear some jazz, for crying out loud!

Something similar happened just over a hundred years ago in Paris. The Ballet Russe was preparing its third ballet with the young hotshot Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, collaborating with one of the most respected dancers in ballet, Vaslav Nijinsky. The title of the ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) implied something beautiful, lush, and sonorous. The aristocratic art crowd of Paris likely expected a beautiful, rather traditional dance piece with clear, easy to follow music. What they got was something quite different.

The opening bassoon solo calls out in its as-of-then-unheard extreme high register. Guffaws of disgust at the sound echoed through the hall. The orchestration built up into a cacophonous mess, landing at last on an awkward, unresolved chord… which it repeated over and over again for the next few minutes. Around this time, the curtain rose, and instead of the beautiful, smooth lines of traditional ballet, the dancers were stilted, bent at awkward angles, and jumping around in the most unnatural ways. While reports of rioting that followed have been exaggerated ever since, to say that people got upset would be a drastic understatement.

Now, imagine both of these situations again, but instead, the audiences approached the events without any expectations. My friend arrived at his venue not expecting any jazz, just ready to take in whatever interesting sounds he heard. Paris ballet attendees were prepared for whatever sights and sounds might have assaulted their senses. Perhaps a “riot” would not have broken out. Perhaps I wouldn’t be here 100 years later constantly hearing people ask me why composers write such weird music (okay, maybe that conversation is for another article…).

Our perception of music (and of just about everything else, I’m sure) is shaped by our expectations. We can, however, with practice and the right mindset, train our minds to break away from expectations. Those familiar with Zen Buddhism might refer to this concept as “beginner’s mind”; approaching every experience as if for the first time, free of any preconceived storyline about the experience that might affect our perception and, hence, enjoyment of it. Expectations can certainly be useful at times (it’s nice to know that when you go to a Pixar movie, you aren’t seeing a terrifying horror film (unless you were unfortunate enough to be seeing it at this Ohio theater…)), but we’re more apt to see things in interesting, exciting, and (by definition) unexpected ways without them.

Take this example (see #3); a group of kids were played music by Edgard Varese, a noisy avant-gardist, and Maurice Ravel, a “friendly” post-romantic impressionist. I’d be willing to bet that most adult audiences would enjoy the Ravel more (in fact my brother-in-law asked me once why I was listening to a bunch noise one time I happened to be listening to Varese in his presence), but the kids actually preferred the Varese. It had more energy and crazy sounds. Free of expectations, that childlike energy stands out from the what-some-might-consider-“real” music of Ravel.

Another example: a group of Mbenzele Pygmies living in the Democratic Republic of Congo were played the theme to Psycho. Whereas most folks in the USA and Europe would identify the music as being tense and even off-putting, the Mbenzele didn’t hear it that way. They thought it was all fun, happy, playful even. Because that’s what music is to them. That’s what their expectations guide them to, whereas in most of modern Western culture, the sounds of Varese and other “modern” composers are associated with unpleasant industrial noise or horror movies.

Being a modern composer who enjoys writing and listening to strange music every now and then, I’m a bit biased on this subject, as I can directly benefit from audiences shedding a bit of their expectations. Subverting expectations can create interesting juxtapositions (see the now-somewhat-tired “sad music + violent scene” trope in action films and whatnot), but I don’t expect every movie and game score I work on to be experienced by an audience lacking any shred of expectation. However, I think as audiences we can all benefit from clearing away as many preconceived notions as possible when going into any new piece of art, or even any new experience in life; we’re far more likely to enjoy ourselves that way.

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