Expectation is what happens when a listener anticipates a future event in the music. Put another way, it is when the listener has some idea of what will happen in the future of the music.

This is usually achieved through repetition. For example, if I present a pattern:

A A B C, A A B C, A A B ?

The listener would probably expect C to take place next (where the ? is).

Expectation can be a powerful tool for manipulating the experience of the listener. By being aware of patterns and the degree of repetition in your work, you can have a greater understanding of the expectations that the listener has as they are listening to the piece.

If you have a section of music where you think the listener will be expecting something in particular, there are two things you (the composer) can do:

  • Fulfill their expectation.
  • Deny their expectation.

Of course, this is a very simplistic view, but will serve for the purposes of discussion. Feel free to explore the grey area in between on your own!

There’s not much to say about fulfilling the listeners expectation, only that it usually increases stability and reinforces familiarity.

Denying the listeners expectation is much more interesting, because this is where the music breaks the pattern and surprises the listener.

There are two special cases of expectation denial which are particularly interesting: that of pushing back the expected material, and that of pushing forward the expected material.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with pushing back. This is when the expected material occurs later than the listener thinks it will occur. Using the above example, pushing back might look like this:

A A B C, A A B C, A A B B C

Notice that on the third repeat, the position where the listener would expect a C is actually occupied by a second B, and the expected C actually occurs one unit time later.

Pushing back usually has the effect of suspending the progress of of piece. If done well, pushing back can increase the expectation of the listener – that is, make the expectation stronger. This is common in pop music where there is a bar or two of something between the end of the second (or third, etc) verse and the chorus. In this case, it makes the listener want the chorus more, and feel more satisfied when they actually get it.

On the other hand, pushing forward means giving the listener what they expect, but earlier than they expect it. Again, using the above example, pushing forward might look a little like this:

A A B C, A A B C, A A C

Notice that during the third repetition, the listener expects the C, but actually gets it one time unit earlier.

Pushing forward usually has an effect of speeding up the pace of the music, and can also increase the excitement of fulfilling the expectation.


  1. June 17th, 2009
  2. June 25th, 2009
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