Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Reverse your usual expectations

Most music is written in 'keys'. Keys are specific groups or 'scales' of notes that a composer can choose from when writing music. There are two main types of keys: major and minor.

Think of weddings, celebrations and Christmas: much of the music written for these will be in major keys.

Think of remembrance services, funerals and Halloween: much of the music written for these will be in minor keys.

Arguably, the association of major keys with lively occasions and joyous feelings (and minor keys with sombre occasions and sorrowful feelings) is almost as much about cultural expectations and conditioning as about the characteristics of the keys themselves.

For example, in Russia and Eastern Europe lively and energetic pop songs (and even advertising jingles) are written in minor keys. Indeed, when asked why this was the case, a Russian musician said that the major keys were reserved for 'inexpressible sadness': a very dramatic reversal of Western European expectations indeed!  

Antonin Dvořák, one of the most accomplished and popular musicians of the 19th century (and, as a Czech, heavily influenced by Eastern European musical traditions and practices), also challenged Western European expectations concerning the use of keys.

In the Third Movement of his 4th Piano Trio in E minor, Op, 90 the slow and sadly reflective opening and closing sections are in a major key and the more lively and energetic middle section is in a minor key. This, at least to Western ears, reversal of the usual use of keys not only adds an exotic richness to the sound and texture of the music but also (given the slightly more complex overtones and subtly dissonant emotional undertones of the minor keys) weaves a darker melancholy into the otherwise brightly dancing liveliness of the movement's middle section.

Dvořák was able to add subtle but telling emotional depth to his Trio by simply swapping the expected order and function of his music's keys. This straightforward but not always emulated musical 'slight of hand' provides a small but telling hint as to why many consider Dvořák a particularly creative and accomplished composer.

Often, we can not only uncover significant insights but also (like Dvořák) gain superior solutions by reversing our basic expectations (be these perceptual, cultural or social, or bound-up with traditional practices and ways of doing things). 

What would be the outcome if you reversed the expected order of your actions or the methods and techniques you use? What would be the outcome if you began in the way opposite to that usually expected? What would be the outcome if you travelled in the opposite direction to that usually expected? What would be the outcome if you swapped the techniques usually used for solving one problem with those of another? What would be the outcome if you reversed your expectations about an individual or a group? 

What would be the outcome if you chose to be optimistic where you were usually pessimistic and pessimistic where you were usually optimistic?

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