The Importance of Surprise in Music and Wine Appreciation

surpriseThis study reported by Ars Technica is about music, but I suspect its findings can be applied to any aesthetic object including wine. Secret Chord Laboratories looked at the top 100 songs on the Billboard charts from 1958-1991.

The researchers found that the most popular songs had a high level of harmonic surprise, including the use of relatively rare chords in verses, for example, instead of just sticking with, say, a standard C major chord progression (C, G, F). The best songs follow up that harmonic surprise with a catchy common chorus.

In a follow-up study they looked at songs from 2000-2019 to assess whether the degree of harmonic surprise increased over time.

That analysis showed that harmonic surprise increased across the board over time and that the increase was much more pronounced in the most popular hit songs, regardless of musical style—whether it be Elvis, Madonna, Nirvana, Beyoncé, Drake, or Taylor Swift. And “This is America” (by Childish Gambino) came out on top.

I suspect we would find the same results in wine at least among a sizable cohort of serious wine drinkers. Although we enjoy wines with typicity, complexity, power or elegance, we also want to be surprised. The surprise of new or unexpected aroma profiles or textural contrasts activate the reward systems in the brain just as in the case of music.

Of course the wine must meet all the other standards of excellence if it is to be appreciated. Novelty by itself has limited appeal. And it’s challenging to try to explain why some surprises work and others do not. But, nevertheless, the mystery and anticipation of what we will find when we open a bottle and the thrill of discovering something new is a significant part of wine’s appeal.

No doubt there are many wine drinkers who prefer consistency and enjoy returning again and again to their favorites with the expectation they won’t be surprised. The same is true in music. What I think these studies show is that there is a sufficiently large cohort of “surprise junkies” to push songs that have that element of surprise to the top of the charts.

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