“A Goldilocks Zone,” or Fitting Surprise

21 02 2012

How does music convey emotion?

According to McGill professor Dan Levitin, one important way is through the subtle manipulation of surprise.  Discussing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Levitin notes,

“At about the point when the right hand starts playing the melody four measures into the piece there’s this burst of feeling.  In general, what’s going on is that what we want as listeners is for music to surprise us but not too much.  If the music was completely surprising we’d be disoriented.  On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable, we’d grow bored of it, and it would seem banal.  And hat the composer has to do is find that balance and get it just right: the Goldilocks zone.”

On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone translates this as “the just-right amount of surprise.”

(Listen to the whole story–it’s terrific!–over at On the Media’s “How Music Conveys Emotion.”)

The power of this kind of surprise also has been recognized in fields other than music. To see the outlines of the conversation about fitting surprise in literature, especially poetry, check out this blog’s “Fitting Surprise.”

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