I’ve discovered something about my own tastes in music. The kind of music I like, it turns out, is music with a pretty high density of musical ideas in it. That means for every minute of music, there is a lot of thought that has gone into it and that thought becomes apparent as novel arrangement ideas, unique timbres, clever mixes, counterpoint, key changes (modulation), clever instrumental performance, ingenious lyrics or harmonies, hooks, unexpected sounds and sonic elements, intriguing rhythmic changes, an unusual word, a quirky vocal inflection, etc. I just love it when it is obvious that a lot of care and intelligence has gone into the making of the music. I like the fact that the music is engaging, but a constant flow of surprises too.
There is a natural tension between expectation and surprise, in music. If it becomes too predictable, it rapidly becomes boring. If there is nothing to latch onto, no regularity or predictability at all, it just becomes a chaotic, disinteresting noise. There is a clever balance to be struck. I’m sure the position of that balance point between expectation and surprise is entirely subjective. I am equally sure that I like quite a lot of surprise, but only if set against something with patterns and regularity. When you think about it, what idea density is all about is actually probability. It’s the probability that the next bar of music will contain something new and unexpected, versus something you expect to hear.
Albums of music have their own contour too. If you listen to a collection of songs, the most memorable albums are often structured in such a way that your musical interest peaks at about track seven of ten. It’s like a good novel. The action builds to a climax and then there is a denouement. This structure is something that we find emotionally and aesthetically satisfying, it seems.
I am always amazed at how stable musical memories can be. I put a CD into the player in the car the other day (yes, I know I am a dinosaur) and before the music began playing, I could already imagine the opening bars playing in my own head. The surprising thing was that when the CD player started playing, the memory I had seemed to me to be in perfect tune with the music now emanating from the speakers. The other amazing thing is that I had not played this CD in ages. Of course, I could have been fooling myself, but you have to admit – most people remember music in a surprising degree of detail and accuracy, over a remarkable length of time. I guess that’s because it is interesting, affective and because there are structures and diverse surprise elements to latch onto. The brain has material to work with, in forming that musical memory.
When you delve deeper into this, it seems to me that the music producer, composer, arranger, songwriter, musician is actually engaged in a form of mind manipulation. Because there is such a strong link between musical memory and emotions, the task of the musical artist is to construct mind candy that tends to make the listener want to remember the experience of the song or other musical work. The aim is to make it memorable, once again by giving the brain enough structure and surprise for it to be stimulated by it and interested in storing it in long term memory.
It makes you wonder if this creative idea density notion works in other fields of art, such as architecture and painting, to name two. Perhaps we like the interplay of regularity, repetition and expectation against the unexpected, surprising or unusual. Maybe that’s why modernist and post-modernist architecture both leave some people flat. The former is too regular and the latter too chaotic. The balance between expectation and surprise is too far at one end of the scale or the other.
Another aspect of my preference for music that is dense with ideas is that I almost always prefer music made by bands, with a collaborative song writing and production team, but guided by a single strongly individual artistic vision. It’s a difficult task to come up with musical surprises. Too often, we fall into becoming predictable, as instrumentalists and producers. If the ideas are trite and predictable, they lose their surprise value. A record where every track has the same arrangement and instrumentation quickly tires me.
It’s for this reason that some dance music leaves me cold, unless it is a constant flow of musical ideas. The long, repetitive, samey stuff is a big turn off, to me. The stuff that takes you on a journey, like much of the best trance music can, is far more interesting, in my opinion.
Where do you set your personal musical idea density dial? Do you prefer predictability or constant surprise? I think this is a really interesting way to look at music. You don’t often see music categorised by idea density, do you?