3 Examples of How Musical Surprises Get Your Attention

As the newest member of Made Music Studio’s production team, I haven’t worked on that many projects, but I have already developed a pretty good sense of how to translate certain sonic takeaways into actual musical ideas. When a client wants “epic,” for example, I don’t find it too hard to tell if we’re hitting the mark. But in the last month we began production on a new project where one of the key emotional touchstones was “surprising.”

That’s a new one for me.

I must confess I’ve never thought about how one conveys surprise in musical terms. In some ways it’s actually more literal than most of the emotions we’re asked to translate. While a piece of music can make you feel optimism or wistfullness, for example, it can’t inherently be optimistic or wistful. However, a piece of music can literally be surprising, and it can do so directly, without any kind of emotional or interpretive translation.

So when a client describes themselves as surprising, you would think it would be an easy task to capture that quality musically – just write a piece of music that is surprising. But surprising music doesn’t necessarily evoke the kind of feeling we might be going for. Surprising compositions can make us feel playful, giddy, uneasy, frightened, or distracted, but they definitely don’t make us feel bored.

I thought I’d share some of the more interesting examples of surprising music that I encountered while thinking about this topic.

Joseph Haydn – Symphony No. 94, G Major

This is the classic example of an overtly surprising composition. The second movement of this symphony begins with two very simple, restrained statements of the theme. Then the surprise: a huge fortissimo chord, punctuated by a single timpani note. This surprising moment never happens again, anywhere in the piece.

While the moment itself is of course incredibly surprising, especially to sleepy or bored audiences (which was probably Haydn’s intention), the emotion it evokes is something closer to playfulness or frivolity. In fact the movement as a whole is very playful and lighthearted. The surprise moment actually sets the tone by saying to the audience, “Hey folks, we’re gonna have some fun with this.”

University of London – The Melody Triangle App

An Android app that allows non-musicians to create music in real time through a simple GUI. What makes The Melody Triangle different from other music apps is that it is also a research tool built to study the relationship between music and information theory. One corner of the triangle represents absolute repetition – the same note or sound repeating infinitely. One corner represents maximum noise – each note is 100% random and unrelated to the note that came before. The last corner represents periodicity – longer series of notes are more likely to be repeated in their entirety. By sliding tokens around the triangle you can play with differing levels of entropy in the music, and therefore the level of surprise. Researchers are hoping to use tools like this to quantify exactly how much surprise we actually want in our music.

D.J. Detweiler – Wrecking Ball “Flute Drop” Remix

Okay I admit I’ve always wanted an excuse to talk about this person. I don’t know who D.J. Detweiler is, I don’t know where D.J. Detweiler came from, but he or she is a genius. What seems like a gimmick gets reworked over and over again throughout his or her remixes, both for the obvious humor but also as a commentary on D.J. and EDM culture. The surprise is what wakes you up to how silly pop music can be at its core.

What’s striking about these examples is that surprising music can result in a wide range of emotional responses. But in every instance, there is a feeling that the music is reaching out to you and giving you a little wink. When creating surprising music for clients, we’re giving them the opportunity to reach out to their fans and customers in a similar way. They can show a particular kind of humanity, humor, and intelligence that comes from taking your listeners on an unexpected journey.

Jon Anderson is Production Utility / Studio Technology Coordinator at Made Music Studio. Talk to him on Twitter @talktojon.

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