• Harmonic Surprise
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Harmonic Surprise
on: June 20, 2018, 21:59:32
Read this....what does it mean to you and how can we incorporate it into our songwriting?

Based on the music cognition literature, we propose two hypotheses for why some musical pieces are preferred over others. The first, the Absolute-Surprise Hypothesis, states that unexpected events in music directly lead to pleasure. The second, the Contrastive-Surprise Hypothesis, proposes that the juxtaposition of unexpected events and subsequent expected events leads to an overall rewarding response.

 8)
"The main thing is to have a gutsy approach....but use your head." Julia Child

 "In a world of robotic conformity, the only originality left in music is the imperfections" Eric Craptone

"Special thanks to Steve Gleason for making me who I am today." Leonard Scaper

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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #1 on: June 21, 2018, 13:26:23
Hi @Leonard Scaper  :)

So what they're saying, I think, is a good measure of what makes a piece of music popular is the level of surprise experienced by the listener.  By surprise, I gather from quickly reading the paper, they primarily mean using chords that are not usually found in the key (non-diatonic chords to give them their fancy name).  According to their research, there are two kinds of surprise they measured against, surprise which leads to more surprise, and surprise which then resolves itself.  The research seems to show that both kinds are the best, with some suggestion that super surprising verses followed by resolving choruses seem to be the best blend.

So in other words, to write great songs, you need to be throwing in some unexpected chords in there.  ;) 

The full paper is at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435755/


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #2 on: June 21, 2018, 15:09:28
Hey @Jim .....I wonder if we can take this premise even further and look for similar results when we throw in unexpected lyrics or surprising instrumentation and the resolve back to the familiar?


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #3 on: June 21, 2018, 16:14:47
Funnily enough I was thinking the very same @Leonard Scaper a little while before!  Specifically in terms of language, one could have a metaphor which extrapolates into an allegory (reflecting the absolute surprise), or a metaphor which is fleeting (reflecting the contrastive surprise).  ;D

I suppose such parallels relate to the very nature of prosody, and allow us to craft every single element of our music into a symphonic and almost synesthetic response to its narrative.  But I've been eating dictionaries again.  :-[ :D


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #4 on: June 22, 2018, 11:24:08
« Last Edit: June 22, 2018, 12:03:55 by MrBouzouki »
I guess it's all to do with how a listeners brain interprets the sound. To some people jazz is just too alien for them, too much dissonance or complexity, others find ska or reggae or funk or rock not fulfilling their emotional needs. This might all be connected with musical conditioning, hearing a familiar thing to latch onto, like the millennial whoop mentioned on here a while ago.

Our modern tuning system means that unlike the past the different keys don't have a characteristic flavour, they are just part of a continuum to a point. Having said that, moving from a major tonality to a minor one or vice versa gives a shift of emotion in the listener, even quite young children will pick up on the idea of a sad or happy song. You are emphasising certain notes more and the inter-note relationships that gives a sad or happy vibe.  I guess that has quite a bit to do with where the semi-tone steps are too.

Modulating one step in the cycle of fifths or fourths only gives a small change, one note, to the possible notes so although it will sound different then I guess the brain soon adapts to the change. Most of the notes played, and some of the chords are the same so there is a feeling of difference but at the same time comfort from the shared sounds. John Powell suggests it's a gear change, something that makes a difference for a while, but soon becomes the new normal. I like thinking of it this way.

The obvious thing to consider in Western music is the times certain keys are used, which I guess are often linked to the instruments that are being used to play the music. The flat keys were more popular in the 1940's and 1950's  due to the brass instruments, so that generation of listeners would have been conditioned to hear songs played and sung in those keys. Step forward to the 1960's and as the guitar came to the fore,  more songs written using easy guitar chords like C, D, G, A and E would have moved listeners to be conditioned to these keys and sounds. In all this the piano was the great leveller, but I think it was often a harmonic supporting instrument in popular music. The world isn't full of piano music.

Then you bring in trends in musical styles and again brain conditioning plays a big part in the pleasure response to music. If you are 17/18, just finding your feet in life, everything is boozy, fast and new then the music of 'these years' will embed itself in your brain. You latch on to a 'tribal identity' too with the music part of the culture you and your friends are part of. So even 20 or 30 years down the line, if you hear one of those songs from your past, or something like it, then your brain says "ahhhhhhhhhhhh I like this", as it's familiar to you.

Then there is the timbre of the notes.

Quote
In music, timbre (/ˈtæmbər/ TAM-bər, also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish different instruments in the same category (e.g. an oboe and a clarinet).

The various developments of modern music making has lead to a much wider variety of tonal colour. This has resulted in certain sounds again giving that connection with the brain, that response when the distorted guitar kicks in for it's solo, the moody synth line that whisk you away, complex world rhythmic drum patterns, a certain hypnotic club beat, with perhaps distortion to match, it's all additional conditioning that acts on that brain of yours.

How Music interacts with us is a complex story and is much more than the sum of it's parts. No one element is responsible  as it's tied to the life of the listener itself.  What they have experienced, or longed for, or miss, their social standing in society, work, hobbies etc. etc.

Modern song-writers are the true bards of our age, so we must carry on telling our musical stories and never let it be reduced into a prefabricated product. It's always been more than about money, making a living. 

Ummmmmm - steps down off soap-box  ::) ::) ::) ::)
 
"Love and Life is all about connections"


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #5 on: June 22, 2018, 19:29:12
That was a good read, @MrBouzouki  :) :) :) :) :)

I just posted Paul MaCartney's new single over on @Dutchbeat 's thread ( https://www.songwriter-forum-kitchen.com/forum/life/3/the-sir-paul-topic/4538/msg48540#new ) and listening to it there is a fantastic example of harmonic surprise right around the 2:00 mark. He changes everything up and then just as suddenly slips you back into the comfort zone of the song.


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #6 on: June 26, 2018, 00:38:15
I had a watch/listen of that video and it goes to show how the surprise doesn't have to be huge a surprise for it to be effective...

Macca seems to have the whole thing around the same chord sequence, G-C, then F-G, apart from the bit that @Leonard Scaper points out...but that's just a vamp [extended singlish chord] in D?

So if you're interested, or just wondering why that might be surprise, I think I know the answer: that main chord sequence, on the face of it, implies G, doesn't it?  Well it starts with G...but then it's got an F in it?? ??? In fact, I think it's better to think of it as G mixolydian, which sounds fancy, but there are hundreds of songs built around that scale (regardless of key), and it's just C major where you centre around the G, if that makes sense.  The nice thing about "mixy" is you get to play the flat 7, like in the blues, and you can hear that flat 7 in the video.  It's so common it doesn't sound out of place at all, just has a bit of groove, that scale...but then Macca hits us with D major, with a flat seventh too (I'm guessing) and just that chord tells us we're definitely in G major proper...and the I -> V change in tonal centre key is so often heard that it sounds up, even though it could equally be down...

But you know, I've waffled again... :-[


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #7 on: June 28, 2018, 13:51:01
So back to the original topic as opposed to my tangential posting, I still reckon they are barking up the wrong tree here.

Surprise, harmonic or otherwise, has an impact for sure, but the brain craves familiarity and the comfort of sounds that stimulate a pleasure response. You know it's going to please you, and you aren't disappointed, even though it's a new song, there is enough in it for, as you said in the 60's , "Dig It"

Macca has a lifetime of successful songs to draw on, songs that have touched people, so he can tap into that creative stream and create another one, almost on demand. Also fans are expecting "more of the same", think of all those old bands touring at present, who are playing all their big hits. People often don't want to hear the stuff off their new album, they want to hear their heroes playing the songs that connected for them, at that time of their lives that was important to them. Also think of all the pub bands etc. doing 'covers' and tribute bands doing just one bands or artists songs.

So for me, surprise is important, but what the vast majority of listeners want is the comfort of a familiar song, but dressed up in new clothing, different lyrics, slightly different chords.
It's no surprise that the old I VI V progression is still going strong. You've heard it all your lives just in different ways.

The disconnect comes with generational shifts when new stylistic variants might shake up the status quo. Rock and Roll blew away the stuffy, 1940/50's sound, Acoustic guitar and electric guitar herald in a time of peace and love in the 60's. In the 70's there were many more diverse tribes and hence styles of music and so on to the present day.

Whatever your musical poison, you always want more of it and a sense of belonging.  ;D ;D ;D ;D ;D ;D


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #8 on: June 28, 2018, 16:39:54
@MrBouzouki .....that's what they are saying as well.......that going back to the familiar after the surprise is even better than the surprise.


Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #9 on: June 28, 2018, 22:16:57
« Last Edit: June 28, 2018, 22:29:23 by Bill from November Sound »
But, most important of all ..... the guitar player must act surprised when changing chords!  :D

"https://www.youtube.com/embed/HOnibz2NQA8?start=69"
Bill
Songwriter, Keyboards, Arranger, Producer & Engineer for November Sound

November Sound is based on the Mother, Father & Son musical trio of Melissa, Bill & Will. I'm the father so anything I post will have my wife singing and/or my son playing percussion.


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #10 on: June 28, 2018, 23:59:07
Ha - I enjoyed that @Bill from November Sound , and the chord thing is so true :-)


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #11 on: June 29, 2018, 01:15:05
But, most important of all ..... the guitar player must act surprised when changing chords!  :D

"https://www.youtube.com/embed/HOnibz2NQA8?start=69"

Very funny video, thanks for sharing @Bill from November Sound ! ;D ;D ;D


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #12 on: June 29, 2018, 11:44:21
Ha, that video did make me laugh @Bill from November Sound!  The Neil Young song was spot on too.  :D

But back to the main point @MrBouzouki, I really do think you have taken too contrary a position to the academic paper that caused this post.  :o They didn't just construct a measure for whether a song "works" or not, the measure they were using is how well the song did in the charts...so ultimately down the general population's willingness to spend money to obtain a copy of it...that's a pretty unequivocal measure of whether a song works or not, isn't it? And as @Leonard Scaper says, they found that the winning formula was not only surprise, but also a return to "normality" after surprise.  The example Macca song hasn't really got anything wild at all going on there, there are probably thousands of songs which start mixolydian and briefly go to different mode or key...the Beatles particularly were fond of that mode, so yes, I think it is representative of Macca tapping into something, but in my honest opinion I don't think it's top drawer stuff by a long stretch.  The old I IV V (or more specifically the V returning to I) is needed to establish what key we're in (if major, as most are, although minor is very similar), so that's why we hear it so often, but once we've settled down to being in a key, where we go from there is where the opportunity for surprise lies.

OK, let's turn it on its head...can you think of any top drawer songs, real classics, that only consist of I, IV and V?  I'm struggling...some of the Elvis ones I guess, but the ones that stand out usually have some kind of harmonic twist in them.  The ones that do come to mind are more often or not I feel promoted to their position of success by being representative of some kind of cultural springboard, such as "Rock Around the Clock", which is just straight 12 bar blues, but at the time was "an anthem for rebellious teenagers"...I think the cultural thing you allude to, how tastes change over the years, is a nuanced consideration is the measure of a song's greatness, but not one to supersede the observations of the paper that started this.  In my mind, the shift of styles over the years, merely helps us to expand (or maybe restrict?) the scope of what surprises are permissible...(to take an extreme example, imaging playing Jimi Hendrix to a 16th century chorister!  :o)


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Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #13 on: June 29, 2018, 17:32:58
I take your point @Jim, perhaps I'm being a bit too contrary (although I do like being like that at times ;-). Academia needs to be challenged, I know our research was, with alternative hypothesis to be tested, if possible. 

The issue I have is perhaps using scientific method, (what else do scientists have to be honest), and chart listings as a metric has to exclude other variables such as peer pressure, social standing of the buyer,
generational trends, the skew introduced by the main record-buying public being a young age group, that sort of thing. Also they have restricted themselves to our Western European music system so obviously other cultures music has been ignored as they have no way to assign a ranking to this. Since it's a brain thing, they need to look at music holistically across ALL music systems, from sophisticated music like Opera to tribal music done by African tribes at funerals etc.

For me it's no surprise that the injection of 'Blues Music' lead to a whole heap of white bands riding basically on the back of field hollers done by African slaves, and the introduction of the b5th, b7th into our dominant Western cultures musical melting pot. Look at the rise in 'World Music' where our Western ears were stretched by complex rhythms,  the explosion of rapping as an art-form 'set to music', which reflected the social issues of the day. The surprise for me comes in waves not at an individual song level so from a whole planet point of view it's all about cultures interacting and injecting new exciting possibilities into the things we hear.

But that's only mostly for the young, as the brain gets less plastic with age, less able to accept the new, it falls back into patterns that reinforce the past, so "The Old Songs" are literally the best.

Anyway my earlier comment still stands for me :-

Quote
How Music interacts with us is a complex story and is much more than the sum of it's parts. No one element is responsible  as it's tied to the life of the listener itself.  What they have experienced, or longed for, or miss, their social standing in society, work, hobbies etc. etc.

Anyway, I'm looking too for a I IV V that was successful too. Does it have to have no surprises it it at all ?


Re: Harmonic Surprise
Reply #14 on: July 02, 2018, 00:14:55
Fascinating discussion all.  :)   ( sorry about that little interruption up there)   ::)
 
The most popular songs I can think of with I IV V  or only I V  are in the Southern Rock, Oldy Moldy Rock and Folk genres. I personally wouldn't call "Gimme Three Steps" TOP SHELF .... but people around here love that stuff. Probably because as @MrBouzouki says that's what they listened to when they were in high school.


Honestly if there was something I could change in the world it might be what Mr. B says here,
Quote
But that's only mostly for the young, as the brain gets less plastic with age, less able to accept the new, it falls back into patterns that reinforce the past, so "The Old Songs" are literally the best.
I think he is really right and I think it is really sad :(
I love to hear new music. I purposely look to the unfamiliar and look to push my own boundaries of what is listenable. You know those "Easy Listening" radio stations .... well I like a "Hard Listening" radio station.  :D



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