You can't know something without nothing, you can't know up without down, and you can't know self without other

Life is the tension of opposites - a vacillation between polar opposites. It's through sadness that we can know happiness, through boredom that we can enjoy surprise.

When we experience extremes, we come to the realization that these supposed opposites are not adversaries, but two sides of the same coin, two sides of a magnet -- inextricably dependent upon each other in order to be discerned at all.

We experience the world through our senses using this tension of opposites. 

A table is hard to a human being's hand, because a human hand is softer than the wood. It is because our hand is soft that the table feels hard. It's a subjective experience that we, as humans, have. 

The same is true in music. A song can only feel loud and powerful if it has something to contrast it, a softer section perhaps. Otherwise, we would eventually become desensitized to the loudness and it would become normalized in our ears.

It's because of this that our preferences are fluid. We seek novelty in order to experience surprise and continue our growth and inspiration. 

That's why today, I'm sharing something I found that totally knocked my socks off and challenged all my assumptions about what constitutes "good music".

It's a project called "The Most Unwanted Song" by Komar, Melamid, and Dave Soldier. The goal was to survey a bunch of folks to find out the elements in music they disliked the most -- and then make a song combining as many of these elements as they could. These included holiday music, bagpipes, pipe organ, children singing, product placement, cowboys, rap, opera singing, politics, bossanova synths, banjos, harps, and tubas. 

They also made "The Most Wanted Song" from elements that people reported they liked in music. Listen to it first here:

ot bad, right? You might have wondered if you heard it before in an elevator or the waiting room at your dentist. It's sort of mellow and predictable and, for that reason, easy to tune out.

Now, listen to "The Most Unwanted Song". Oh, by the way, it's 22 minutes. Apparently people also hated really long songs:

You might be thinking, "What the hell just happened?!" I certainly did. But I was also gripped the entire time because I didn't know what was going to come next. And when parts returned like the children's choir singing about random holidays and shopping for them at Walmart, I burst out laughing.

It's totally GREAT and novel, and worth paying attention too. It's the opposite of what people say that don't want, but something about the combination of all those hateful elements reveals something beautiful we couldn't hear or appreciate before.

The mind feeds off of novelty and is bored by consistency. The most persistent stimuli are the ones we are least aware of. Like brushing your teeth, climbing some stairs, or driving our car. We rarely pay conscious attention; we just sort of perform these things on autopilot. They don't enter our mind because they don't require our conscious attention. These things are predictable, and predictable things, evolutionarily speaking, the brain learns to ignore. The conscious mind is scanning for what is different, what it needs to attend to.

We can use this understanding to better grab the listener's attention with our art. By more carefully juxtaposing the elements of our music, heightening disparity, so as to make each emotional effect more dramatic.

Try using the power of opposites in your songwriting and see what happens:

Play with:

  • Loudness and Softness
  • Staccato and Legato
  • High and Low Registers
  • Vague and Specific Lyrics
  • Many Words and Sparse Words
  • Sound and Silence
  • Opposing Themes (Cold and Hot)
  • Slow and Fast Tempos

If you'd like to hear more about the making of the two tracks above, listen to this segment of the radio show This American Life.