But how much does pure predictability play into this? A lot, especially in popular music. Most of the time the relative popularity of a song or even an entire genre of music is entirely dependent upon a simple concept. Whether the listener is aware of it or not, any song that has consistent, predictable changes is much more likely to be popular than one that is seemingly random and scattered in form.
One of my students and I were discussing this just today. He has played guitar casually for many years but decided he wanted to take things to the next level and began lessons with me a few months ago. He is absolutely thrilled to discover this concept of predictability and like so many others I’ve heard say over the years, he said, oh my god, I never thought about that but you’re right! THAT’S why such-and-such a song sounds so much like another, and that’s why I could learn and remember it! And that’s why I like it!!!!
This gets into a bit of a thorny area although I would probably not bring it up with anyone who has an ironclad interest in just one kind of music.
I have no doubt that for as long as humans have made music it has been important that it be predictable because after all, music is a primary form of communication. To communicate we must be able to be understood and the only way we can learn to be understood is through repetition – and that leads to predictability. There is great comfort in this.
So sooner or later aspiring guitarists realize that successful songwriters tap into this need, whether by chance or by design. For a very long time the verse/chorus/verse/chorus (with the occasional bridge to mix things up a bit) structure has been used in lyrics. In popular music, the I-IV-V and II-V-I progression is drilled into our ears from the moment we begin listening to popular music. Blues, folk, country, rock, even jazz songs come home to those progressions in whole or part, most of the time.
Is this good? In the end, does it really matter? Well, I guess that depends upon how much one values originality. Blatant pandering such as I often in hear in “modern” so-called country music sometimes borders on downright rip-off. I have this vision of recording company big shots sitting around in a board room in LA or Nashville with their in-house writers and A&R people instructing them to come up with yet another potential hit filled with clichés for the latest pretty boy singer in a bent cowboy hat.
The challenge, as I see it anyway, is to come up with songs that are just a tiny bit different in structure but still give the listener something that they can hold onto. This might be done with chord structure (a small key change here, a chord outside the scale-line structure there) and/or rhythmically. In modern acoustic guitar music I hear this from bands like Mumford & Sons, the Punch Brothers, Cactus Blossoms, Wood Brothers and many more.
About now it may sound like I have disdain of predictability in music. Far from it! I love the blues and there is no more predictable form of popular music, in chord structure anyway. And classic country singers like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline stick to three or four chords in most of their great songs. What most blues and those country legends have in common is raw, honest feeling. On the opposite extreme of complexity but playing with equal amounts of feeling are many of the greats of jazz. But their music takes some hard turns and the listener is constantly challenged. Whether one has the patience and endurance to submit to those turns is an individual choice. Is there predictability in jazz? Sometimes but it may take some effort to discover. And the acceptance of the fact that it may not be there at all.
Just about all the students I’ve ever taught have that ah-ha moment at some point when they realize that the basic structure of much of American popular music in all its forms can be of great comfort and yes, enjoyment. And then many of begin to wonder – how can I make that a bit fancier. Make it my own. And that’s where I come in….
Peace & good music,