Reading the Ask MeFi thread on good intense/complex classical music [via Phil] (there are a number of modern composers I now need to check out), one comment caught my eye, on not getting, then getting classical music: Then I listened to Beethoven's 9th about 50 times, until finally, at every point, I vaguely knew what was going to come next. (I was a german student at the time, so I appreciated the choral movement.) Now it's my favorite piece of music, bar none. The problem was that it was simply too complex to appreciate on the first several (dozen) listenings.

When I'm describing what I experience when I listen to modern classical music I really love (or when I have a similar reaction to some wordy philosophy), I usually liken it to being tickled. I want to laugh out loud (I do, when I'm reading) and gasp at some audacious or unexpected leap of abstraction or musical manoeuvre. And when I think about what being tickled is, it's all about pleasure and the unexpected. It's not just random: The tickler gets the tickled used to something in particular, then jumps suddenly to a different tickle.

For tickling to work, you have to be able to anticipate, and not know when your anticipation is going to be countered. You need to be able to read ahead. Perhaps that's how it is with music and the good books: You need to know enough about the pattern to have a model of what's coming next, but the pattern needs to be complex enough that it can always surprise you.

I could end this by speculating that pop music is stupid because it has a pattern that can be grasped in the first listen, but I'm not sure that's true. The reason pop music all sounds alike is that really there aren't many separate 3 minute songs--they're all one piece. Maybe the patterns and rhythms across the whole corpus of UK early millennium girl band music is just as complex and exciting as, say, listening to the whole of Beethoven's 9th. That the crowd goes wild and sends to the top of the charts a particular song - a song that, to me, sounds no different from the rest - just means that, without that pattern, they've heard some virtuoso leap in the patterning. In some tiny way, they've had their expectations confounded and been tickled by the music. Any audience, in the Royal Albert Hall or the Top of the Pops studio, responds the same. I can't hear it because I haven't given that subgenre of pop the requisite 50 listens. Perhaps, perhaps.