Lionel Richie wasn’t who I expected to encounter on a gray morning in Venice.
I was having breakfast in the Hotel Londra Palace, and while I ate my rolls studded with pumpkin seeds spread with burrata cheese, I watched as the rain started pouring down over a bronze equestrian statue (Vittorio Emanuale, the first king of Italy), and the choppy gray green lagoon.
Music was on my mind, since I knew that Tchaikovsky stayed in this very hotel, and composed part of his fourth symphony in room 106.
But I never once heard any Tchaikovsky or classical music of any sort on the sound system of this exceedingly elegant hotel. No, what was constantly playing, both in the hotel and in shops and restaurants I popped into throughout Venice was a steady diet of US pop, circa 1980s, with occasional breaks for Lady Gaga. That morning over breakfast, what I heard was good ol’ Lionel crooning “ I wonder where you are…and I wonder what you do…are you somewhere feeling lonely, or is someone loving you?” and the rest of his 1984 chart-topper, “Hello”.
I felt the wobble of dissonance.
Now, I’m actually not someone who’s seriously into music – whether I’m traveling or at home, I tend to only listen to my iPod when I’m running or at the gym. But I do notice when the soundtrack seems entirely at odds with my surroundings, and it happens frequently when I travel. Like, there was that time last year when I was dining at an excellent Thai restaurant in Mexico City – and suddenly realized that I was listening to “We’re the Chipmunks” – Alvin, Simon, Theodore.
It’s not like I actively wanted to hear, say, accordion music in Venice, or a mariachi band in Mexico. But obviously some part of my brain carried that expectation, because the contrast between sound and setting was startling.
In both cases, I giggled — comedy lives in the gap between expectation and reality, after all. And so does music, as Daniel J. Levitin points out in his fascinating book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, we’re all born with a set of cultural expectations about music. At the most basic level, even the least musical person you know can predict the sounds of a scale: do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do. We expect one sound to follow another, and when it doesn’t, our ears prick up – we get interested. For instance, imagine mi-mi-fa-sol-sol-fa-me-re-do-do-re-mi-mi-re. This is actually the main theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. (“Come and sing a song of joy for peace a glory, gloria”). “The main melodic theme is simply the notes of the scale…but Beethoven makes it interesting by violating our expectations,” writes Levitin. He starts on a strange note and he ends on a strange note” – on mi and re rather than do.
That’s just one tool in the musician’s kit – our expectation about genre, rhythm, tempo and so on, are all ripe to be overturned in the hands of a skillful musician. “Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations,” Levitin writes. The brain is actually trying to predict what the next sound will be on the basis of past experience — and is thrilled when that expectation is interestingly violated.
This is also why it’s hard to listen to a genre of music that we’re entirely unfamiliar with, at first. We don’t know the “rules” of the music, so we don’t get it when they’re being violated. Although there’s more to it than just this, one way to appreciate new music is simply to listen to unfamiliar music more often. (And you don’t have to listen analytically – you can absorb the information you need simply with passive listening.)
It strikes me that travel works in the same way as music. Levitin points out that people have different tolerances for musical violations of expectations “Each of us has our own “adventuresomeness” quotient about how far out of our musical safety zone we are willing to go at any time,” he writes. And we each have a similar tolerance for how much we can stand the unpredictable in our travels – whether we pre-plan our trips to the smallest detail and get irritated when things don’t go accordingly, or, whether we can stand back and find something to appreciate in the gap between expectation and reality.
Certainly, the happiest travelers I know are the ones who don’t get exercised when things don’t go as planned. The comparison to music suggests that a tolerance for violated expectations is a muscle, one that we can build simply through experience. And since comedy also lives in the gap between expectation and reality, I’d argue that the reward for building this muscle is, when finding your inevitable travel mishaps more funny than annoying.