Musical Deviation

Leonard B. Meyer, composer, music theorist and philosopher, passed away December 30, 2007 at the age of eighty-nine. An article on Meyer’s life appeared three days later in The New York Times by Kathryn Shattuck.

The opening section of the article begins as follows:

'Emotion and Meaning in Music,' [1956] adapted from his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, placed Mr. Meyer at the forefront of the emerging field that connects music theory and aesthetics to psychology and neuroscience. In the book, considered his most important, Mr. Meyer sought links between emotional responses and musical patterns, especially those in which an expectation is built up and then delayed or diverted — for example, the 'deceptive cadence,' a chord progression figuring prominently in Mozart’s compositions in which the dominant chord (based on the fifth note of the scale in question) resolves in an unexpected way rather than returning to the key's 'home' chord, or tonic [1].

The 'links between emotional responses and musical patterns' were central to Meyer's theory of musical deviation. Briefly, musical meaning arises when we expect something to happen and it doesn't—it’s delayed or blocked by some form of deviation. There are many 'tricks' composers and songwriters use to deviate from the path of our expectations.

For example, a composer can employ chromaticism to deviate from a predictable diatonic structure and create uncertainty or ambiguity in the music which has an immediate influence on the listener’s expectations. Deviation for the listener occurs because the consequent was not expected. But this uncertainty, delay and ambiguity doesn't last long. It eventually resolves itself and the listener’s expectations are fulfilled.

More recently, Daniel J. Levitin explored the subject of musical expectations and how our expectations are artfully manipulated by a skilled composer or songwriter in his book Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006) [2].

Composers like Mozart and Beethoven used conventional musical tools which involve high levels of repetition such as sonata or rondo form, but what ultimately makes a piece of music ‘great’ is the ability of the composer or songwriter to deviate from the mundane and repetitious. It's a process that I like to call 'creativity within bounds.'

We can see this process as work not just in music, but in great works of writing and poetry. In traditional Chinese poetry and painting, Simon Leys encapsulates the very essence of this process when he writes that ‘[t]he specific quality of a poem does not reside in a creation of new signs, but in a new way of using conventional signs.’ (italics in the original).

Ley's discussion on creating something sublime from existing conventions is worth quoting at length:

For a layman, at first sight, Chinese painting may appear rather limited and monotonous: landscapes, for instance, are invariably built on a combination of mountains and rivers, organized on the basis of a few set recipes. These stereotyped formulas are themselves filled with conventional elements-trees, rocks, clouds, buildings, figures-whose treatment is standardized in painting handbooks that are straightforward catalogues of forms. The range of poetry is equally narrow: it uses a rigidly codified language, a set of ready made images...In a sense, one could say that Chinese poetry is made up of a narrow series of clichés embroidered upon a limited number of conventional canvases. [3]

Albert Murray wrote much about jazz and blues musicians performing within established conventions and styles in his classic book Stomping the Blues (1976). 'It’s not so much what Charlie Parker did on impulse that made him a formidable soloist and influential stylist that he was,’ writes Murray, 'it was what he did in response to already existing procedures.' [4]

Peking opera and other regional operas in China might sound monotonous and repetitious to many people. If you’re waiting for that famous sultry aria from Act 2, for example, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting a catchy overture to set the scene for what is about to unfold, you’re be equally disappointed.

In Peking opera, there are essentially two styles that formed the basis of Peking opera melodies: erhuang and xipi, collectively termed pihuang. There are of course others (including those wonderful instrumental interludes called qupai or labeled tunes). Audiences familiar with the conventional melodies are waiting to have their expectations jolted One of the most exciting things is listen to in Peking opera is the musical dialogue between singer and the Peking opera fiddle (jinghu) player and to hear where both singer and instrumentalist deviate from a prescribed melody.

The silences of a piece also create anticipation for what is to come. Vinod Menon, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Research in the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University writes that '[s]ound is very good at setting up anticipation, music in particular…If you listen to the great composers, they were masters at setting up silence and using expectation violation to make their masterpieces.' [5]

I love Menon’s expression 'setting up silence.' The pause at the end of a musical phrase, a special place where nothing happens or seems to happen, the space between what has passed and what will eventually unfold.

Menon writes that neural activity reaches its peak during the silences, the spaces, the emptiness. 'From a subjective point of view, it's very interesting that at the point of no stimulus, there is a strong presence of neural activity.' This suggests that the neurons in the brain are frantically setting up expectations or possibilities of what is to come. 'It is during the space between the music, during the silences, that we set up networks and process all this information,' says Menon. 'From a musician's perspective, it all makes sense. It’s all about expectation.' [6]

Within the silences, seeds of expectation are planted. Skilled composers and songwriters know how to go about violating our expectations then resolving or fulfilling them.


[1]. The full article can be read at:

A brief bio of Meyer can also be found on Wikipedia:

[2]. See 'Anticipation,' (Chapter 4), Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, New York: A Plume Book, 2006.

[3]. Simon Leys, 'Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics',
The Burning Forest, London: Paladin, 1988:34-35.

[4]. Albert Murray, 'Singing the Blues,' Stomping the Blues, Da Capo Press, 2000: 127-128.

[5]. Angela Castellanos, 'Mapping the Brains Response to Music'

[6]. Ibid.

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