Anchors: how to hold the hand of the listener

Due to the corona crisis, the world premiere of Ritratto by Willem Jeths was online. Lucky for me, because I wanted to go and listen, forgot about it and then saw it online.

I was listening to this opera thinking: how come that I lock on to some passages easily and not onto others? Some melodies and motives are very clear and lead wandering thoughts back to the music. But some passages were very hard to follow, remember, even singing along was hard. I thought about the lessons of Mike Verta, who is always teaching how to take listeners by the hand, how to win their trust so you can take them everywhere you want to without loosing them to wandering thoughts.

Online opera Ritratto by Willem Jeths

When you compare atonal music to pop-music, you will find that the latter kind is easier to remember: The brain is a pattern recognition machine with a short term memory of around 6 seconds.

Pop-music is designed to use that brain capacity to the max: after only one chorus, you can often sing along. The rhythms, chord schemes and predictable structure help you understand the song as soon as possible. This is why the brain likes this music: it’s easy to understand, to remember, to sing along and just enjoy the music. Don’t get me wrong: it’s very hard to make this type of music very good, because it is so ‘elegant’. The whole concept is this type of music is loved across the world, and I think that is because the brain enjoys its familiarities.

We all love what we know.

So if you want the brain to remember something, you need structure, repetitions, things that help people remember and enjoy the memory-game that music is. Atonal music, especially 12 tone music, is confusing because it lacks repetition, structure. It’s very hard to remember, sing along. It’s at the other end of the spectrum for ‘familiarity’.

You need to repeat the whole composition to understand it and follow it. The memory capacity of the brain on the long term will hold to the composition, but you need to teach the brain the whole composition first. This makes atonal variations of music hard to enjoy during a concert: you would need several repetitions of the composition during a concert to remember and enjoy it.

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on

Atonal, ‘avandgardistic’ music is ‘unfamiliar’, because it doesn’t use the optimal remembering capacity of the brain. It will only sound familiar when you studied and remembered the whole composition. This means you will not enjoy a premiere of this kind of music, but you might enjoy recordings.

There is also minimal music: music that repeats itself over and over and over. I feel very bored by this type of music, it stops my brain from ‘thinking’, from ‘remembering’. When I am sitting in a lounge with this kind of music, I just stop thinking at all.

Composer Martin Romberg has a great theory about this type of music. He states that the brain deals with PTSS, death, trauma, by repeating thoughts. Your brain repeats thoughts until they make sense, but traumatic thoughts will never do that per definition: trauma does not make sense. That is why we call it trauma.

Minimal music uses a repetitional pattern to make you ‘brain-dead’, which is a very agreeable state when you have traumatic thoughts all the time. The music replaces the repetition of traumatic thoughts with a repetition of soundbites. For traumatized, stressed people, this kind of music might ease their mind into ‘no thinking’, which is a better state than ‘repeating trauma’s’.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

This might also explain why atonal, non-structured music leaves you with a traumatic feeling: your brain get’s an overload of non-processable sounds, it ends up ‘traumatized’ a little. It keeps searching for something to lock onto, a pattern, a short term repetition of a melody, anything. Atonal music is music that represents ‘trauma’ to the brain: it does not make sense. It is unpredictable. It is highly unfamiliar, and by the 12 tones definition, it will never become familiar because there is no pattern for our machines to recognize.

Music that has familiar anchors, that can be remembered, can also be passed along. Great music can be passed along, by singing it to some-one. Because the quality of the music does not depend on the sound, it’s the harmonics and structures. The great song, will stay the song, whether you sing it, or your mom or your sister plays it on the piano.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I think that this is why this atonal of music is not growing onto people: there is nothing to pass along. You cannot remember it, then sing it for others, who can repeat it. You would have to sing the whole composition several times for them to understand and remember. Nobody does that, it’s not a fun memory-game.

We love predictability with an occasional surprise.

You can help the brain process music by adding anchors: sound patterns that people can lock onto while listening to something new, something they don’t know. And when they feel comfortable enough, you take them away from that a little, surprise them. And you get them back ‘home’ again, where they can lock onto the known sound-patterns.

There are several elements in music that influence our pattern recognition machines:

  1. Melody
  2. Rhythm
  3. Chord progressions
  4. FORM
  5. DNA
  6. Energy curve

Melody: Repeating the melody: with other orchestration, other key, other voice-leading, different octave, tempo x2 or x1/2, change the meter 3/4 version of the melody. If you want to re-use the melody at the end for a ‘feel home’ emotion, it’s important to train the brain and make your melody memorable.

Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern is something the brain locks onto easiest. After a few bars of percussion, you already can dance along. sustaining this rhythm when you hit something atonal, helps people staying with you during a ‘creepy’ scene. A sustaining pedal-tone does the same with a ‘very long’ rhythm.

Familiar chord progressions: I IV V I. It seems boring, but people will anticipate the ending I, means you can surprise them with something else without loosing them.

An overall organized composition: The structure of blocks repeating, using a bar-numbering system for changes: 4x4x4x4 or 1,2,3,5,8,13. The brain will start to expect a change within a known number of seconds. And again you can surprise the listener without losing him.

DNA: provides a solid motive in all keys and rhythms. Adding a rhythm to the DNA helps locking on to variations of the theme without feeling lost into a whole new composition. Working with this system helps you stay focussed on this DNA and this FORM during this composing. It helps you keep unity during the creative, chaotic process can composing is.

Energy Curve: The big span: The use of the energy curve can make people predict when it’s ending. You know you did this right when the audience is shifting its sitting near the ending.

By Anneloes Wolters


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