Music is all about playing with our expectations—as listeners, participants, and creators. One of the most striking things to be gleaned from studying the great melodies in music is how many of them employ the same rhythmic profile for each measure, with one or perhaps two affecting variations. It’s this regularity that serves to ground the listener in an expected rhythmic pattern, an expectation that is then turned upside-down (or at the very least, nudged in an unforeseen direction).
Just as these moments of listening delight flow (and acquire their specialness) from a well-established sense of the quotidian, the existence of certain primitive patterns in our brains likewise provides a framework within which intuitive forms of communication (surely, the original “music” before the coded articulations of language were added) might flourish. To see what I mean, check out this video of improvisational genius Bobby McFerrin leading an unrehearsed jam on the pentatonic scale with a little help from the audience:
This is one of those moments that make me very glad to be alive—and the quip from the neuroscientist at the end of the video is priceless. The pentatonic scale (in some form) is part of the folk tradition of cultures around the globe, and there may even be a case to be made that certain intervals and patterns are part of the human neural blueprint. But even if McFerrin is playing with something merely familiar to the audience, rather than hard-wired, he’s found a way to tap into and empathize with the audience’s expectations—enabling some kind of near-telepathy in which McFerrin used body movement and his considerable charisma to project his intentions to a large mass of people.
As a composer, I find this more than a little distressing since I’ve grown so accustomed to the proposition that expectations can inhibit free listening and free thinking. While there’s surely something to this, it can be equally disconcerting to be adrift with no expectations; this is the history of the 20th century, in which the old common tongue was lost until a new language of recorded commercial music took over around mid-century. At this writing, the expectations derived from TV scoring, video games, and two-minute pop songs appear to be the new black.
So while I try to be wary of expectations, I’ve come to see how their complete absence creates a world devoid of a common tongue, unable to foster the kind of communication necessary for true interaction. In composing, having some expectations of what I am looking for—and what I will accept as a solution—can provide a chance for the unexpected to occur. When we can play with expectations, without being dominated or frightened by them, the greatest potential of reaching out to other expectation-prone beings like ourselves is achieved.