How to Understand SuRprises in Classical Music

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When the Cheshire Cat fades to just a smile in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the reader is more or less nonplussed. Weird, abnormal stuff has been happening for the entire book, so a cat disappearing is accepted as part of the established universe of the book. But if you were reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and all of a sudden a cat showed up, started talking to Lucie Darnay, and then disappeared, you would be incredulous and shocked to say the least. Why? Because Dickens just broke character! Everything else has been so realistic and serious up to this point that a vanishing talking cat is a solecism if there ever was one.

This, though an extreme example, is what authors and composers do (granted on a less shocking scale) within their own works. Why does it move us so when (A TALE OF TWO CITIES SPOILERS) Sydney Carton sacrifices himself for Darnay? Or when Sherlock (MORE SPOILERS) Holmes (supposedly) dies? Or when Javert realizes the law might not be as straightforward as he always thought? The authors have allowed their characters to defy the expectations previously set up in relation to them. All in all, the unexpected is what drives plot forward.

In classical music, there will often be surprises. You’ll be moving along and then all of a sudden, BAM, a Cheshire Cat will materialize. This favorite feline may take the shape of an infinite variety of things: volume, rhythm, pitch, instrument. A single or multiple changes may trigger the surprise.

But enough about what constitutes a surprise! Obviously we all know when we’re surprised, though it may be hard if not impossible to precisely pinpoint why.

So what can surprise mean in classical music? Well, if you’re listening with a book character in mind (see How to Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers) for all the deets), here are two simple ideas:

1) The character you’re imagining may have just been surprised

Well, I was going to give you examples of a character being surprised, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say that another character showing up where they are least expected, an unforeseen turn of events, a sudden change of weather, a sudden realization that someone is not who you thought they were—all of these things and more may surprise a character and/or the reader-turned-listener.)

2) You may have just learned a startling piece of information about a character

Again, no spoilers, but if you had a really quiet person in a book and then all of a sudden found out they played electric guitar, you might be surprised.

What’s your favorite piece that has a surprise in it? Or book for that matter?

Thanks for reading and happy listening!

You might also like: Repetition, Fairy Tales, and Classical Music

10 thoughts on “How to Understand SuRprises in Classical Music

  1. I think one of my characters just learned to play the guitar!
    Great post. I love classical music and the subtle ways composers use to keep us enthralled.

    BTW, you write in a very positive manner. Your personality shines 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read a trilogy once but now I can’t recall the titles… anywho, the very last book kept throwing these huge plot twists at the ready every few chapters, and the first two books hadn’t been much like that. It was very interesting, and definitely very surprising.

    Liked by 1 person

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