Everybody Likes Surprises

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Do you like surprises?

An Amazon package delivered before the expected arrival date, a bunch of flowers from a secret admirer, or seeing that the new season of your favorite series has finally been released on Netflix. 

I love surprises, which is why it is no surprise that I decided to write an essay on being surprised. 

I don’t know much about music and I knew absolutely nothing about harmonic surprise before writing this essay, which made the writing process so much more enjoyable – there was a surprise around every corner. 

The biggest surprise?

How much L&D can learn from music and the way music is enjoyed. 

The article that led to my curiosity was written in reaction to two studies done on harmonic surprise and the changing preference for harmonic surprise in popular music.

If you’re like me you might be thinking “Okay, hold up, what’s harmonic surprise and why should I keep reading? I’m here for the learning content, not for music. I have Spotify for that.” 

Well, sit tight and allow me to take you on a harmonic journey that will surprise you with some valuable L&D nuggets. 

Harmonic surprise is that moment when the song you’re listening to deviates from what you expected. Think Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen or Oh! Darling by The Beatles. And bringing it back into the present for all the Gen X’s and Millenials, think This is America by Childish Gambino


The studies found that people like to be surprised and that over time, people’s preference for surprise is increasing. So as we go down the decades, each new group of hip young teens (the cohort who largely dictates which songs end up on the top of the charts) likes to be surprised a little bit more than the previous group. 

Why is this? 

Your music expectations are largely based on what music you were exposed to early on. To a Baby Boomer teen Oh! Darling might have been hella surprising, but a Millennial who grew up listening to The Beatles in their parents’ homes won’t be too impressed. They expect a certain level of surprise already, so to delight them, musicians need to add even more surprise. Music must continuously evolve and grow to keep us interested.


Here’s a quick test to prove (or disprove, I’m open to being surprised) my point about how hip young teens between 14 and 19 are driving the popularity of songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Keep in mind that the position of a song on the billboard is influenced by three things: radio airplay audience impressions, sales data, and streaming activity. Does this preclude you already? When was the last time you paid for a song or listened to the radio? And do you, like me, listen to the same nostalgic playlist on Spotify over and over again instead of exploring what’s new? 

If you’re still in the game, here’s the test: What are the top 5 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 right now? Click here to check your answers. 

Could you name just one? I couldn’t. 

Four of the five songs at the time I did the test were familiar to me though. I had heard these songs before, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the title or the artist or how popular the song was before heading over to the chart. Popular music manages to seep through into our lives even if we’re not actively listening to this music. It becomes intertwined with the cultural fibers of the time in which it was created. 

This brings up another area of music I want to explore: the influence of pop culture on our music preferences. Music is powerful, it’s nostalgic, it allows us to build our identity, and to belong. Music is the reason why I wore Spice Girl shoes as a pre-teen and perhaps why you had frosted tips, wore baggy clothes, then skinny jeans, or only wore black before capsule wardrobe was a buzzword. 

To summarize:

  • People like surprises,
  • preference is not static,
  • music and culture are inseparable and 
  • evolution is necessary for success.

At Curious Lion we’re not in the business of music, we’re in the business of learning. So let’s transport these takeaways to the world of learning design.

Surprise = Learning

Studies have found that babies who were surprised learned faster and more efficiently than babies who were not. Think about playing peekaboo with a baby. It’s the surprise that makes them laugh and start to learn about object permanence. 

In pre-historic times surprise often meant danger or immense opportunity. Those who didn’t pay attention to the rustle in the bushes might have lost out on a protein dinner that night or might not have made it to dinner that night at all. I guess that’s still true about things that go bump in the night. Do you get up and investigate or do you convince yourself it’s just the cat?

Surprise tells us we are wrong. When you are wrong you have the opportunity to learn and find out why you were wrong. 

BUT, we live in a world where being wrong is not rewarded. At school, you were rewarded for being the first one to raise your hand when your teacher asked a question, and for getting the most answers right on a test. The kid asking all the questions because he didn’t understand, was annoying and eventually stopped asking questions and just pretended to get it. 

As adults, we continue to avoid surprises at all costs. We try to plan for every eventuality because predictability and control lead to success, not uncertainty. Not allowing ourselves to be surprised is a missed learning opportunity. Even a negative surprise, like losing newsletter subscribers or not getting the promotion you wanted, holds an opportunity to learn and grow. 

Our brains are wired to appreciate positive surprise, we like it. The pleasure sensors in our brains fire up when we are surprised. Surprise stops us in our tracks and allows us to focus on the thing that surprised us, it allows us to dive deeper and explore the reason for our surprise. Surprise is a powerful learning tool and can be leveraged to create transformational learning.

Preference Is Learned

Just like music preference is influenced by what we have been exposed to early on in our lives, our preference for learning can be linked to our previous exposure to learning too. What do we expect learning to look like? How do we want to learn? Do different generations want to learn in the same way? Do they expect the same thing when the word training is mentioned? Probably not.

Preference is something we should be considering when developing our learning experiences. What has our audience been exposed to before? What do they expect and how can we surprise them?

Surprise = Learning = Culture = Evolution

The world we live in is not static, culture is changing all the time. New technologies, globalization, progress, new ideas, new discoveries, new ways of thinking, and new laws are constantly shaping the culture in which we exist. 

Changes in culture will have an impact on the way we live and interact eventually. How we learn, how we perceive learning, and how we want to learn will change over time too. If you are in a people enablement role you will need to start understanding these changes and evolve or be left behind. Evolving and creating learning experiences that are current will help your learners learn while future-proofing your organization.

Before I conclude this essay, I want to leave you with three tangible pieces of advice.

Create a learning experience catered to your specific audience

Think about the whole human when creating learning experiences. Ask: Who is your audience? What are they expecting? What do they prefer? What prior knowledge do they have? What kind of training are they used to? Design a learning experience that allows your learners to grab onto something that is familiar to them before and after surprising them. Balance is everything. 

Create intentional moments of surprise in your learning experiences 

Leverage surprise to allow your learners to stop and think about what they are learning, explore the reason for their surprise and accumulate new knowledge. Be intentional about your surprise. It should be just enough to keep your learners engaged. Too much surprise with too little familiarity will alienate them. 

Adapt your approach to cultural changes

Pay attention to cultural changes and adapt your approach to stay relevant. What does the next generation entering the workforce want? Stale click-through e-learning? I think not. 

Learning is consumed like music, if you enjoy it and it caters to what your preferences are, you will keep on listening and perhaps even dye your hair green – I’m looking at you Billie Eilish fans. If you enjoy the learning experience and feel like it has been created for you, you are more likely to allow yourself to be surprised, to stop what you’re doing, and guess what, learn something new! Just like musicians must create music for their listeners, we must create learning for our learners. 

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