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Balancing Surprise & Predictability, On Muse's Jukebox

Shelves full of music records

Get ready for something different on Friday's episode of Muse's Jukebox at 10 p.m.

I’m certain I speak for all my fellow music hosts on Montana Public Radio when I say that what makes presenting music on MTPR so gratifying is that we are not limited by some master playlist from which we must select tracks for our programs. Within some pretty broad parameters, we can literally play about anything. This is what we mean by "hand-picked music."

All of our jockeys are true aficionados (several are even working musicians) who draw from lifetimes of passionate interest in music. This generally means that each host has a sizable music collection at home from which to draw; has spent many hours listening to music each and every week; and has likely read countless articles and books about music over time. We are grateful to have a sizable audience with which to share music we love … an audience willing to hear some things they may never have heard before each time they tune into one of our shows. We recognize that many of our listeners are true music aficionados as well; and that they have an appetite for expanding their own musical horizons in ways they are unlikely to do by confining their radio listening to commercial stations.

A very wise music educator once said something that seems to hold true for me. He said that, in order for music to hold listeners’ attention, a balance between predictability and surprise is needed … Too much of either and most listeners will either A) fall asleep, or B) feel lost.

A very wise music educator once said something that seems to hold true for me. He said that, in order for music to hold listeners’ attention, a balance between predictability and surprise is needed … Too much of either and most listeners will either A) fall asleep, or B) feel lost.

One thing I have found challenging in recent months in my role as a now-and-then fill-in host is that my own interests are kind of all over the map, and so when choosing music, I may not be providing enough predictability. While I generally try to program each 1 ½ hour or 2 hour program in such a way that the music hangs together as a whole – sometimes more successfully or more obviously than at other times, I occasionally worry that a set-list may be so “out of left field” in terms of listeners’ expectations for a particular show, that they may find it disorienting.

So for example, as a jazz lover, I have recently been devoting most of my listening to recordings of songs that may loosely be considered as belonging to The Great American Songbook. For, as many a great jazz interpreter/improviser has reminded students, these songs have lyrics, and it is important that instrumentalists know them to understand a song’s full meaning. But, even though many of the songs have a timeless quality, popular tastes change, and certain harmonic, melodic, and lyrical styles, as sophisticated as they may be, have gone out of favor. So, while I may well have been enjoying the listening I’m doing at any particular time, it can be difficult to gauge whether listeners will share my enjoyment.

All this is to say that I am very enthused about the playlist I have put together for the Feb. 5 edition of Muse’s Jukebox (from 10 pm – midnight). And while I’d have to admit it is something of a departure from our usual Friday night fare, I am confident many of our listeners will enjoy the mix of familiar songs and things they may never have heard before.

And, by the way – if I may digress - when you hear a recording of a song interpreted by a great singer or instrumentalist that happened to have been made a number of years ago, if it is the first time you’re hearing it, even while it is “old”, it is new to you. … A good song is, after all, still a good song.

I hope you’ll be among the listeners who join me this Friday evening at 10. You are bound to hear some new old things you’ll enjoy.

Larry Garde