Music: A balance between novelty and comfort

April 2nd, 2020

We love music because it ties in repetition, familiarity, and predictability with a sense of creativity and excitement. Those first three elements are crucial because they give us a sense of comfort and satisfaction when we are listening, and generally make us happy. There are many rules that have been developed throughout history that work towards establishing and codifying those elements in every genre and style of music imaginable. But when music is overly repetitive, familiar, or predictable there is a risk of boredom. If music is perfectly predictable it is no longer exciting, if it is completely familiar it no longer feels creative! What we need is for some amount of novelty and variability to be introduced to keep it exciting and maintain that creative feel that makes us want to keep listening and finding new music. There needs to be a balance found between the tried and trusted rules to keep us happy and satisfied, and enough variability and novelty to keep us interested.

What is variability?

Because I'm going to be talking about this quite a bit, I want to clarify that I'm not talking about any specific pre-existing musical term when I talk about variability. What I'm talking about is any element of the music that feels slightly surprising, unexpected, or out of the ordinary. It could exist in the vocals, the melody, the choice of instruments, or anything else.

How to find the right balance?

Variability is something that needs to be handled with care. People have different tolerances for it. Apply too much and you might scare them off or 'offend their sensibilities', creating music they don't enjoy listening to. Apply too little, and they will get bored and move on to something different. As a musician you need to have at least a basic understanding of your audience and what they might expect and want. This is especially important for established musicians trying to expand their discography. If you completely break away from what you have done before, there is the definite risk that the new music won't sound good to people that enjoyed your earlier work!

It's also worth considering the differences in tolerances between different populations, as well as the tolerance in certain genres. Pop music is as successful as it is because it has selected a level of variability that is within reasonable bounds by nearly everyone. Nobody is heavily offended by the musical choices made in a pop song, but people can get a little bit of variability with interesting lyrical choices and differences in vocal quality, even if the instrumentals, rhythm, and chord progressions sound rather similar between many of them.

Lots of alternative music though, although it has a following, may not ever be quite as mainstream because it makes more contentious choices. Artists like Dakha Brakha use very unique instrumental decisions and the vocal expression is different than most other bands. This doesn't make them any less great, and they still have a large fan base, but it means they are less likely to take off and be played on stations across the country compared to a pop star.

How to Introduce Variability

Variability can be introduced in a couple of different ways. First of all, you can simply break the rules. Take a formula you are familiar with and intentionally don't follow one part of it. For example, in the David Bowie song Space Oddity, he intentionally plays an A major chord instead of an A minor chord despite being in a C major scale (basically, he plays a grouping of notes that is outside ). This is breaking a rule, but it does so in a controlled way that sounds great!

Secondly, you can combine different rules and patterns in unexpected ways. Take a rhythmic and melodic formula that is most commonly used in jazz and mix it with country music instruments and lyrics. There is an entire genre of music, electro swing, designed around taking some of the patterns originally build for swing music, and introducing electronic music instruments, synthesis, and patterns into it.

And finally, you can introduce elements that simply aren't as commonly heard. Add in an instrument that people aren't super familiar with, use a chord progression that isn't as common, or even just write lyrics that keep people engaged and intrigued. The band Katzenjammer uses a huge variety of instruments in their music, including one (the balalaika) that is incredibly uncommon.

There are lots of different ways to accomplish this variability, but most of it comes down to understanding the rules of music and finding ways to vary them.

Make It Sound Good

All of the above is good to consider when building a piece, but it's worth remembering that there is one thing above all else that matters in music. It has to sound good! You could have as much or as little variation on the rules as you want, but if you have chosen the wrong rules, or don't apply them effectively, your music won't sound right, it won't make people happy, and your song won't succeed.

So whatever else you do, make it sound good!

One last thing.

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my newsletter. Every week The Wednesday Writeup will come to you with an update on what I have been working on and thinking about, as well as recommendations for things to read and watch. You can check out the backlog and sign up at

I don't have comments on this site, but I would also greatly appreciate any feedback via Twitter or Email.