When’s the last time you queued up an album, pressed ‘Play’, and found yourself overcome with surprise? How about the last time you saw a show, only to find your expectations totally upended?

Most listeners can’t recall the last time music caught them off-guard, yet it’s how many aficionados discover a favorite band. Likewise, rave reviews on Pitchfork, NPR, and Rolling Stone highlight the “surprise” of new releases time and time again. Though astonishment is oft eclipsed by new intrigue, these moments — when surprise turns to serendipity — play a crucial role in keeping artistic ecosystems fresh and inviting.

In that vein, if musicians take one lesson to heart this season, I hope it’s this: you are under no obligation to give listeners what they expect.

At first, there seem to be more counters to that argument than there are Beatles tribute bands. For starters, crowd-pleasing can be the road to commercial success. What’s more, stylistic continuity can keep listeners and musicians alike “in the zone”. After all, it’s what your audience wants; why would you deviate from more of what they love?

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Let no musician confuse expectation with appreciation. Expectation is what happens before you play your song. Appreciation, with any luck, is what follows. Your music is an art form! It’s acceptable — attractive, even — that listener appreciation can manifest as delayed gratification.

Not to play favorites, but jazz can be a great way to tangle in that “sublime inversion” of expectations. In addition to the listening modalities suggested in In Search of a Spicier Musical Experience, some of my most satisfying artistic experiences flow from modern jazz. The marriage of improv, polyrhythm, color, tonality, thematic modulation, texture, and sheer passion culminate in tantalizing volatility.

This volatility, however, isn’t unique to jazz. In fact, another dramatic example is found in none other than dubstep. Distinguished by extreme syncopation, tuplet subdivision, strong motifs, and, of course, anchoring baselines, dubstep actually shares these characteristics with jazz. Although debate rages over what qualifies as dubstep, it can be another exciting road to musical surprise.

Can these eccentricities make jazz and dubstep hard to anticipate, tricky to foresee? Absolutely, but that’s what’s so wonderful about them: listeners can share in the phonic exploits of musicians. These art forms make the soundscape that much more exciting… After all, who doesn’t love adventure?


Thanks to David Edelstein for the encouragement to write this post.

Cheers to WAMU 88.5 Radio for the zesty banner image up top.

Questions? Comments? Corrections? Please do say hello.