I ran across this delightful short film from 2008 promoting the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today:
From the video, a good quote from Byrne:
Adding little bits or changing your expectations is what keeps music really interesting. Because when you listen to music you can generally tell what’s coming, but then when you get surprised by what actually does come then — if it’s not too surprising — it’s kind of pleasurable.
I appreciate the caveat “not too surprising!” But, yes, unexpected elements are often responsible for pushing a song into the ‘special’ zone. These elements can be lyrical, a change of chords or dynamics, unannounced instrumentation, or anything else that comes to mind. And they don’t have to be in-your-face — subtlety is powerful.
The bass line in The Feelies’ “Slow Down” comes to mind. After playing one note for 2:19 of the song the bass unexpectedly switches to a second note. On paper, this seems insignificant, but in the context of the song, it’s a special moment. I get those song tingles everything I hear it — one of my favorite musical subtleties.
You can see Brian Eno reacting to the unexpected elements placed within Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Check him out at 6:05. It’s fun and reassuring to see Eno get excited about the music he’s worked on, especially after all these years. He seems self-aware of his enthusiasm a few seconds later, pulling back a bit.
One last note (and timestamp) on this video. If the amount of clutter in your home studio has you feeling down check out (what I assume is) David Byrne’s workspace at 4:23. The ‘80s Trimline telephone is a nice touch.