When your first heard Judy Garland sing the first word ("Some. . . where!") in Over The Rainbow in Wizard of Oz, it happened to you.
The first time you hear As Tears Go By by the Rolling Stone, Superstition by Stevie Wonder, Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, any song by Joni Mitchell, Kim Carnes or Adele, and the memorable opening of A Hard Day's Night, it happens again.
Clever music students might be able to explain what caused each of those reactions--except the last.
Garland's first two notes, "Some. . .where," leap a full octave between those notes. That's rare, especially from a 12-year old girl.
In Tears Go By, our surprise is hearing the guitar-driven, hard-rocking Stones singing to classical violins. (Similarly, we are startled to hear the Stones' aggressive lyrics in Under My Thumb over one of jazz music's signature instruments, the vibes.)
In Superstition, our surprise comes from hearing a previously unheard-of sequence of notes. Stevie Wonder played the entire song only on the black keys. (Don't try that at home.)
In Solsbury Hill, what surprises us is bracing for rock music's signature 4/4 beat, but hearing the song in 7/4 time, a rare beat for any music. (Among the few rock songs with even a moment in 7/4 time is part of the chorus in the Beatles' All You Need is Love. )
Hearing Joni Mitchell surprises everyone because she tunes her guitar erratically, creating notes unlike any we've head before.
And no musical training is required to realize the surprise of hearing Kim Carnes and Adele. Their voices remind us less of human beings than of forces of nature. Hearing Adele, you experience the added surprise of hearing, in songs like Chasing Pavements, the longest vowels in popular music.
And then there's Hard Day's Night's opening note. For over 40 years, it was one of music's great mysteries.
How did the Beatles do that?
For almost 46 years, musicians tried to duplicate that opening note by combining George Harrison's Rickenbacker 12-string guitar with John Lennon's six-string and Paul McCartney's bass. They failed. But in 2010 a mathematician, of all odd people, took a shot.
Rather than grab three guitars, he picked up a yellow pad and felt pen, and performed a calculation called a Fourier transform. From it, he deduced a fourth instrument was involved, likely played by George Martin, the group's composed: a piano striking an F note on a piano.
But that opening note was so surprising and without precedent that it took over 45 years, and a formula that includes the sequence f(x)e-2∏ix∑,, to explain it.
As in my profession (marketing) and my passion (movies and film), nothing workd on the human mind and soul like surprise. If a song falls into a predictable pattern, we lose interest. The surprises--the notes or lyrics we do not expect--make a piece creep into our soul.
Our brains love surprises. We grew up wanting Cracker Jacks for the "surprise in every package." As teenagers we started to crave horror films, which leapt beyond surprise into shock. We crave surprise endings to movies and complain about predictable ones. And we grouse whenever life seems like just one thing after another; we want surprise.
And that's just what our favorite songs provide: surprise.
-Harry Beckwith is the author of five international best sellers on marketing and buyer psychology and two upcoming novels (Scaling Gin Ridge and The Summer of Love, an almost tolerable singer, and one of five least competent trumpet players of all time.