In my early days on the NYC club scene, amongst the flashing neon pink and blue lights of a particular favorite club, a friend once told me:
“Junior [the DJ] is at his best when he’s careening around a corner by the edge of a cliff, and you never know if he’s going to fall off”. The statement made sense at the time but it wasn’t until many years later that I fully appreciated why.
To be great, music requires a tension between predictability (the road) and unpredictability (falling off a cliff). It’s what adds excitement or depth to a song that might otherwise feel static and repetitive. But this concept extends beyond just songwriting. The lyrics, melody, production, and even the live performance need some form of tension to make the song more interesting.
Why is predictability (otherwise called expectation) important? When we hear a song, we need enough familiar elements so that we can understand how to relate to the song. For example…
In songwriting, there is frequently an upward movement in the melody as we move from the verse to the pre-chorus to the chorus. It’s the cue that tells us where the song is going, so we know what to expect.
In production, a dance record needs a 4/4 beat because it serves as a backbone for that steady rhythm to keep you moving on the dance floor. It’s what you expect from that genre of music.
The first example is melodic expectation which helps us navigate ‘where we are’ in the song. The second example is genre expectation so that we know stylistically what we are listening to and whether it matches our tastes. There are many more examples which we will touch on later.
So what happens if we write and produce a song with all these ‘rules’ in mind?
Let’s say we make the structure of our song Ver Pre Ch Ver Pre Ch Br Ch Ch. We can use the same instrumentation that’s typical of whatever genre we are targeting. And the lyrics will have the exact same rhyming structure across sections.
What do you think we’ll get?
The song will tend towards the uninteresting. We’ll have to depend more on an original theme, clever lyrics, and/or a unique production to get the audience’s attention. But the ideal situation is that we fire on all cylinders and have something special in every department. For a song to stand out, it needs all the help it can get.
So what are some examples of listener expectation that we can manipulate to make a song more interesting? To be continued in Part 2….