Design for Wow 2 – Music
Editor | On 10, Oct 2005
By: Darrell Mann, Chris Bradshaw
Systematic Innovation Ltd, UK.
Phone/Fax: +44 (1275) 34296.0
Head Of Music, Malmesbury School, UK
Phone/Fax: +44 (1179) 342960
A couple of years ago we wrote an article on the subject of Design For Wow (Reference 1). In that article we made the hypothesis that ‘wow’ design solutions across all forms of human endeavour came about when a conflict of some kind was resolved in the eyes of the person experiencing the ‘wow’. The article featured a number of ‘wow’-like design solutions from a variety of different areas. This article forms the first in a series of follow-on studies where our aim is to delve more deeply into specific subject areas in order to explore the ‘wow’ phenomenon in a little more detail. The subject this time is music. In other articles, we will be broadening our scope to also look at ‘wow’s in other fields such as advertising, literature, art, film, architecture and design.
The aim of this article is first and foremost to explore the ‘wow’ phenomenon in its musical context to see if there are any general rules and patterns that might eventually come to explain what ‘wow’ means. While it is not our intention to actually utilise any such patterns that do emerge – at least not in this article – a secondary aim of the article is to explore the possibility that, should rules and patterns exist, it might be possible to systematically compose ‘wow’ moments into current and future musical compositions.
We begin our journey by describing the methods used to determine and uncover the musical ‘wows’ that will form the spine of our argument:
In many ways what makes a listener elicit a ‘wow’ reaction is very subjective. What makes a person experience a wow one day might leave them cold on another. There is, in other words, an issue of emotional context to contend with. In the first instance, then, we have tried to isolate such issues by including inputs from a wide variety of sources; partly through scanning the extensive music literature, and predominantly through access to large numbers of staff and students at an upper school in the UK. In all, over 90 people have contributed to the study, via a series of music lessons that spanned several hours of curriculum time. Participants were asked two basic questions:
1) identify pieces of music or musical moments that more often than not create and emotional wow for you
2) identify what it is about that piece or moment that caused the ‘wow’ moment to occur
Once thoughts and ideas were collated, they were discussed in groups within the class.
The aim during these discussions was to obtain some form of agreement over which pieces of music did or did not constitute a general ‘wow’ classification, and then to agree the musical basis for that wow. Our starting assumption for the second part of this discussion was that ‘wows’ occur when something happens that the listener was not expecting to happen. Hence, for each candidate musical ‘wow’ the groups contrasted what they expected to happen against what the composer actually did. We can see the results of this comparison later in our results Table. It is worth mentioning from the outset though that very early on in the analysis we could see that our starting assumption was a valid one. In fact during the process of reducing the total set of inputs down to the ones included here, we did not eliminate any example where there was no discrepancy between what did happen and what was supposed to happen.
We take some encouragement from this finding since it demonstrates strong consistency with both the Contradictions part of TRIZ, and with the central phenomena of what makes humour work. In this latter regard, a different earlier article (Reference 2) has discussed the underlying basis of jokes; that the joke teller sends the listener in one direction, while the punch-line lies in a different direction. People ‘get’ a joke when they suddenly bridge this gap between where they are and where they were supposed to be – Figure 1. In other words, humour happens when our mind resolves this what-I-expected-to-happen versus what-actually-happened conflict
There is probably no better way of killing the humour in a joke than by trying to analyse it (one of the reasons we still haven’t published our 40 Inventive Humour Principles article!). Likewise, there is a danger here that analysing a piece of music might turn out to be a wonderful way of spoiling our future enjoyment of it. We tried to pay particular attention to make sure we didn’t fall into this trap, especially during the latter analytical phase of the study. Fortunately, our participants seemed highly motivated to think about and share their answers to the ‘wow’ question. To the extent, in fact, that the format looks like becoming a regular feature in the music teaching curriculum; the students enjoy the experience (especially since they were totally free to pick whatever genre of music they liked), and they also learn an awful lot about the ‘rules’ of musical composition. Actually, in light of the ‘wow’=conflict-resolution hypothesis, they get to see how other people managed to break those rules.
So, with the hope that the analysis presented here inspires you to go and listen (or relisten) to a piece of music rather than puts you off listening to it ever again, here are the results of the study:
The following Table includes the following information; the name of the piece and its composer, where in the piece the wow comes (included here primarily for those readers that might want to go and listen to a particular piece), what was supposed to happen, and what actually happened. The right-hand column in the Table then attempts to match the ‘wow’ to one or more of the 40 TRIZ Inventive Principles.
Clearly we are not trying to insinuate in any way that any of the composers actually used TRIZ to achieve their ‘wow’, but merely try to analyse what happened in order to see whether what did happen fits somehow into the TRIZ framework. The idea here is that if something doesn’t fit the framework, then great because we get an opportunity to potentially expand the framework, and if something does fit the framework, also great because it adds another piece into the jigsaw puzzle that might one day present us with a framework that is in someway ‘universal’.
So What Does This Tell Us?
Perhaps the first thing we might notice about the results is that the right-hand ‘what Inventive Principle can we see’ column always has an entry. Further we might notice that there is no magical number ‘41’ amongst the list. All of the musical wows, in other words, are consistent with the existing TRIZ framework of 40 Principles.
More specifically, then, we might begin to notice that not all of the 40 Principles are present in the list of examples. In fact there is quite a strong skew towards a relatively small subset of the 40. Figure 2 presents a ranked list of the Principles we could see being deployed. There are only 44 entries in the Table, and so it would be foolish to try and conclude anything definitive about the Principles that did appear. If anything, the challenge now goes out to see if it is possible to find musical wow examples that arise from other of the 40 current Principles. We will leave this topic for a future article, however, and try now to delve into a little more detail about what we might legitimately conclude from the statistically small dataset.
One aspect that seems to emerge from a helicopter-perspective view of the whole Table is that there appear to be three basic categories of ‘wow’:
1) wows associated with a particular moment within a piece of music
2) wows associated with the overall structure of the piece of music, and
3) wows associated with high-level shifts within or around a given genre of music
Without wishing to delve too deep into TRIZ jargon, what we have in these three categories is the standard sub-system, system and super-system view of the world – Figure 2. Thus, if we take a given individual piece of music and call it ‘the system’, then we can see wows associated with conflict resolutions at the system level. We can then zoom in and see wows within a piece of music (‘sub-system’) and wows that operate at a higher, ‘super-system level – where the conflict exists between a piece of music and its prevailing surroundings.
Let’s explore each of these three categories of ‘wow’ in a little more detail in order to see if there is anything we can learn about each. First of all, Table 2 presents a breakdown of how many wows in our study feature in each of the three categories.
The bias towards the sub-system and system level is not surprising given that when we are listening to a piece of music, or focus is generally ‘in the moment’ and not contemplating the bigger musical picture. This being said, let us now examine each of the three levels individually in a little more detail:
Sub-System Level Wows
These are ‘wow’ moments that occur within a particular piece of music. They tend to occur over relatively short periods – perhaps in extreme cases (like Radiohead’s careerlaunching guitar crunches in ‘Creep’, or Little Richard’s scream in Tutti Frutti) in just a few moments
Closer examination of the pieces that feature in this sub-system category reveals that certain Inventive Principles feature more prominently than others. The most common subsystem- level wow seems to emerge from Principles 19 (‘Periodic Action’ – e.g. changing the beat unexpectedly), 17 (‘Another Dimension’ – e.g. taking the music to an unexpected note or key), and 5 (‘Merging’ – where we see things like the surprising combination or layering of different musical instruments or textures). Table 3 presents a frequency-ranked list of all of the Inventive Principles that our study showed create a sub-system-level ‘wow’.
System Level Wows
These are ‘wow’ moments that relate to the overall structure of a piece of music. Here we are experiencing wows that may well have a longer duration (the Miles Davis composition, ‘Right Off’, for example clocks in at over 26 minutes, and the wow lasts over a duration of over 4 minutes within that overall 26 minute period). As can be seen from the Table, these system-level wows most often occur when a composer alters the structure of a piece from the prevailing norms. Things like putting bridges where the listener is expecting another verse, for example, are typical of this kind of system-level wow.
Closer examination of the pieces that feature in this category reveals that certain Inventive Principles feature more prominently than others. The most common system-level wows seem to emerge from Principles 10 (‘Prior Action’ – usually changing the sequence of a song structure) and 19 (‘Periodic Action’ – where, at the system level, we see several examples of unexpected shifts of pace in a song). Table 4 presents a frequency-ranked list of all of the Inventive Principles that our study showed create a system-level ‘wow’.
Super-System Level Wows
These are ‘wow’ moments that occur beyond the boundaries of a particular piece of music. Looking beyond the statistically insufficient entries in the results table and analysing the bigger picture in its helicopter-view context we can see that, unlike the earlier sub-system and system level categories, the super-system wows appear to fall into two further subcategories. For the sake of argument, we will call these two sub-categories ‘interpolative’ and ‘extrapolative’.
Interpolative ‘wows’ occur at the musical super-system level when two different existing types of music are first integrated in some way to form a third type of music. Classic examples of this kind of interpolative wow may be seen in the work of bands like The Police (integration of rock and reggae), The Byrds (country and rock), and in composers like John Cage (classical and ambient). As shown in Figure 3, the basic Principle being used when these ‘wows’ are created is number 5, Merging.
Our list of wow examples features very few of these kinds of interpolative wows, despite the fact that we could see many as we delved back through musical history. In actual fact, according to Reference 3, a large part of the evolution of all forms of music occurs through the amalgamation and synthesis of existing forms. The issue here seems to be one of timing. When the Byrds released their seminal album ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’, they effectively invented country-rock. At the time of its release, it was very definitely a ‘wow’- like step into previously uncharted territory. Play it today, however, and although it still stands up as a great record, it merely sounds like ‘yet another’ country-rock album. The initial ‘wow’ has faded with time. We can see similar ‘fading-wow’ examples when we listen to:
• electric Bob Dylan – when he first put down his acoustic guitar and plugged-in with The Band, there were newspaper headlines ‘Dylan goes electric’, and cries of heresy from many in the folk genre, now it just sounds like Bob Dylan.
• Paul McCartney’s bass-playing – at the time it was considered revolutionary that a bass-player should play melodies, fills and even lead runs, while again today, it just sounds like ‘normal’ bass.
• Disco music – the first time someone decided to put a bass-drum on every beat of a four-beat bar it was a ‘wow’ that created a whole new genre. Again, today, it is simply ‘disco music.
• Emerson, Lake & Palmer – merger of heavy rock and classical
The point here is that these are all examples of ‘wows’ that have to be viewed from the perspective of their surroundings. They don’t feature much in our list (in fact probably only Pink Floyd and Cole Porter still provoke some kind of a wow, and even then only in some listeners) because we never asked participants to view the pieces they chose from their historical context; rather we implicitly asked what made them go ‘wow’ right now.
If these ‘interpolative wows’ have a tendency to fade with time, the other sub-category of ‘extrapolative wows’ do not. Rather these types of super-system level wows don’t feature much in our study because they tend to be rarer in nature. They also have a strong tendency to polarise listeners – so that what one person will describe as a ‘wow’, ninetynine others will describe as the opposite of a wow. Probably the classic example of the ‘extrapolative wow’ is Captain Beefheart. To many people, Beefheart’s ‘classic’ ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is an unlistenable cacophony. To others, though, it represents a record that even today, 35 years after its original release, packs a whole collection of wow moments.
Beefheart’s extrapolative trick is that he moved beyond the boundaries of ‘music’. Trout Mask Replica is nevertheless very much still an example of Principle 5, ‘Merging’, but it sees the merging not of one type of music with another, but one type of music and something outside of music. In this case, the merger takes place between Delta Blues music, beat poetry and surrealist/Dadaist art. Hence ‘extrapolation’ – as illustrated in Figure 4. Extrapolation is all about extending boundaries. These types of breakthrough innovations tend to be rare. They also tend to create a host of new opportunities for interpolating innovations downstream. Still no-one sounds quite like Beefheart, but many have earned their musical living by Merging what Beefheart did with other types of music – take Stump (Beefheart plus Indie-Rock), Devo (Beefheart plus new-wave), Pere Ubu (Beefheart plus punk/electronic) and The Residents (Beefheart plus pop-rock) as four good examples of bands who simply would not have existed without Beefheart before them.
Other extrapolative wows not featured in our Table include:
– Can, a highly influential German band who brought together rock and electronics during the 1970s
– Alice Cooper – heavy rock and theatre
– Patti Smith – punk rock and literature
Closer examination of the super-system wow pieces that do feature in our study reveals that certain Inventive Principles feature more prominently than others. The most common super-system-level wow seems to emerge from Principles 5 (the already discussed ‘Merging’ Principle) and 35 (‘Parameter Changes’). Table 5 presents a frequency-ranked list of all of the Inventive Principles that our study showed create a super-system-level ‘wow’, whether interpolative or extrapolative in nature.
Summary And Conclusions
There is a very strong correlation between musical ‘wow’ moments and the resolution of a conflict. Typically the conflict centres on shifts away from what a listener expects to happen in a piece of music.
All of the examples we uncovered in this study can be mapped onto the existing framework of the TRIZ 40 Inventive Principles. We make no claim that these 40 Principles are the only ones, but merely that so far they are the only 40. In fact, based on our limited number of cases, only 20 of the 40 have been mapped. 7 of these 20 Principles seem to occur with a much higher frequency than the other Principles. These seven are:
19, 17, 3, 35, 37*, 5 and 15
* interpreted here as ‘Relative Change’, rather than ‘Thermal Expansion – as in Management TRIZ This article has primarily been about analysis of the past. We have made no attempt to show or suggest that the Principles found in past wows can be used to systematically create future wows. It is, however, our belief that the study has uncovered certain repeatable ‘wow’ patterns that could be deployed in a compositional sense. The George Box statement ‘all theories are wrong, but some are useful’, found at the beginning of the first Design For Wow article continues to be relevant here. We will never be able to prove (nor would we ever wish to try) that the ideas presented here can systematically help composers to create future musical wows. We can say, though, that they offer at least a first step towards such a goal. We will be looking to report on some of those first steps in a future article.
1) Mann, D.L., ‘Design for Wow – An ‘Exciter’ Hypothesis’, TRIZ Journal, October 2002.
2) Mann, D.L., ‘TRIZ And Humour’, Systematic-Innovation e-zine, Issue 02, April 2002.
3) Brown, C.T., ‘The Art Of Rock And Roll’, Third Edition, Prentice Hall, 1992.