There’s an interesting tension between music for the listener and music for the performer.
How many times have you loved every detail about the album version of a song, then heard a band play it live and change it up? If you’re like me, your first reaction is annoyance. You came to hear and sing the version you know by heart, not indulge some variation meant to subvert your expectations.
That’s the listener-centric view anyway. Peak experience for a listener is something that perfectly meets the longing and expectation they have for each part of the song they know is coming.
Peak experience for a performer is different. It’s more about being in the zone synchronously with yourself and other performers. It’s more about the beauty of surprise, when a choice goes in an unexpected direction, or comes out with a surprisingly perfect sound for the moment.
True transcendence happens when these perspectives meet.
If listeners are totally in charge, music starts to devolve to the least common denominator and ceases to progress. We get nothing but the audio version of Henry Ford’s “Faster horse”.
If the performers are totally in charge, music starts to revolve around ego in a regressive inward spiral. It becomes weird, self-indulgent, and pathological.
The tension between what pleases listeners and what pleases performers is the fulcrum on which musical truth rests.
When the listener is getting enough of what they expect and want, their delight feeding into and challenging the performers, who in turn give the audience more and challenge them with something new, yet not too far off the path. Both challenge and constrain each other. Both want to be pushed to the point where it feels they almost lose control, but never entirely.
The act of writing, performing, and listening to music is on some level always the pursuit of this musical truth.