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surprise!

March 31, 2011

surprise!

I am not someone who enjoys being surprised. Surprise parties? No thank you. Spur-of-the-moment weekend plans? Not so much. I still have trouble being shown a wrapped gift and told I have to wait to open it. (You get that I’m a real wild and crazy guy, don’t you? Good.)

On the other hand, I love being surprised by music. There is, of course, Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony which sets the bar for all music-based surprises. In a fun coincidence, today is Haydn’s birthday! Born in 1732, Papa Haydn would have been 279 years young today (I know there’s a “surprise” party joke in there somewhere…). But, in addition to Haydn, there are many subtle surprises to be discovered in music.

One of my favorite musical moments ever is near the beginning of “The Alcotts,” the third movement of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata. Emerging out of “Hawthorne,” the wild scherzo movement that precedes it (with the infamous direction to play a particularly gnarly cluster chord with a piece of wood!), “The Alcotts” feels like a breath of fresh air. A simple, repetitive song that has been alluded to in previous movements, it seems as though you’re going to hear a standard musical form. But…here’s the moment: the expected last chord of the introduction — what should be the tonic, the I Chord, the “home base” — is replaced by a chord a whole step down, built on A-flat instead of B-flat. In that single carefully placed instance, you are thrown for a loop. Ives pulls the rug out from under you and you realize this piece is not at all what you initially thought it was. He turns a simple tune into something else, a floating harmonic moment or a figment of memory. From the arrival of that A-flat, the music starts spinning off and becoming something different that it had originally appeared. Surprise!

Another unexpected musical moment that really sticks in my mind is the last five minutes of Barber’s amazing opera Vanessa. The book, by Gian-Carlo Menotti, deals with themes of lost opportunities and the feeling of being trapped in your life; the story is an unhappy love triangle between Vanessa, her niece Erika, and Anatol, the son of Vanessa’s lover from long ago. Erika is in love with Anatol, but at the end of the opera Vanessa leaves with him, condemning Erika to a life of waiting for love just like Vanessa had. As the opera ends, with the musical direction “Dark and Unquiet,” Erika puts on Vanessa’s veil and has the servants cover the mirrors just as Vanessa had. The last lines of the opera are Erika singing “Now it is my turn to wait…” and the stage directions read Erika slowly covers her head with the veil, hiding her face. In a production I saw at the New York City Opera, the lines were sung facing away from the audience as the light slowly closed in on Erika in her chair by the fire — an extremely effective and spooky moment. But here’s the kicker: THE OPERA ENDS ON THE V CHORD! There is no resolution! Two hours of continuous music without a final chord! The audience, like Erika, is left waiting for something or someone that will never arrive; the lack of a tonic chord is an appropriately creepy and suspenseful (and suspended, for that matter) ending to such a dramatic and intense work.

Not to get all science-y on you, but thinking about music & the mind, the theme of our Westside Connections series this season, I did a little digging into why that moment of musical surprise is so, uh, surprising! According to Science News, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for how you react when your expectations have been subverted (I added the italics, FYI): “[the prefrontal cortex] plays a role in the creation, satisfaction and violation of expectations. It may react, for instance, when a beat goes missing.” There’s also a fascinating (though very dense) scholarly article by Daniel J. Levitin and Vinod Menon about an experiment that proved the brain area which processes linguistic structure also processes musical structure. They proved that your brain treats musical forms like verbal sentences and gets agitated when something that should read “the food is delicious” instead reads “the delicious is food.” The A-flat in the Ives “Concord” Sonata is a “the delicious is food” moment for your brain—it recognizes something is different there, and it is not what it had been set-up to believe by listening to other music or reading other sentences. Or, in the words of the study:

Almost without exception, theories of musical meaning are, in fact, theories of musical structure and its temporal coherence. Meaning itself, in a general sense, has been defined as the coordination of schemas and structure, the building of a consistent description based on rules that define internal consistency.

Basically, you brain expects one thing because it is used to hearing music that conforms to a structure, but when Barber refuses to give you that final tonic chord, your brain goes a little crazy.

Do you like being surprised by music? Have any favorite “gotcha” musical moments? Share them in the comments!

1 comment

Thanks so much for this very interesting blog. I love Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1. It repeatedly takes off in different rhythmic directions than I expect. Really get's my prefrontal cortex going. BTW, there s a great chapter on the brain and expectation and surprise in Jonah Lehrer's terrific book, "How We Decide." It is a fascinating read.
http://www.jonahlehrer.com/books

  • —Marguerite, April 04, 2011 11:50 am

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