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 most people 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, and Adele, and the memorable long opening twang of the Beatles' 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 the first and second 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 the accompaniment of--of all possible instruments--classical violins. (Similarly, there is an incongruity when hearing the Stones' aggressive lyrics in Under My Thumb over one of the signature instruments of jazz, the vibes.)
In Superstition, our surprise comes from the previously unheard-of collection of notes; Wonder plays the entire song only on the black keys. (Don't try that at home.)
In Solsbury Hill, what surprises us is hearing a rock song and bracing for rock's signature 4/4 beat, and then hearing instead a song in 7/4 time, a rare beat for any music. (Among the very few rock song 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 you because she tunes her guitar erratically, creating notes different from any you've head before.
And no musical training is required to realize the surprise of hearing Kim Carnes and Adele. Their voices remind you less of human beings and more of forces of nature. Hearing Adele, you experience the added surprise of hearing, in Chasing Pavements, the longest vowels in popular music.
And then there's Hard Day's Night's opening twang. For over 40 years, that single opening note 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 a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar like George Harrison's with John Lennon's six-string and Paul McCartney's bass. Everyone failed; no one could replicate the sound. And so it was that in 2010 a mathematician, of all odd people, took a shot.
Instead of grabbing three guitars, he grabbed a yellow pad and felt pen and performed a calculation called a Fourier transform. From it, he deduced that a fourth instrument was involved, likely played by the Beatles' composer, George Martin: 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.
In classical music, the composer establishes the tone of the piece with what's called the tonic note. Then for the rest of the song the composer dances around the note without ever returning to it--variations of the note, but never the note itself--until the final resolution. Instinctively, your brain wonders: How will this song return to its tonic note? What you feel in that meantime is the delight of the journey, the surprise notes and rhythms, and then your pleasure when, like a riddle, the music resolves itself by returning to the tonic note.
The music we love depends on suspense and surprise. If a song falls into a predictable pattern, you lose all interest. The surprises--the notes or lyrics you do not expect--make a piece creep into your 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 and into shocking. We crave surprise endings to movies and complain about predictable ones. We grouse whenever life seems like just one thing after another; we want surprise.
And that's just what the songs that we love provide to us: suspense and surprise.
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