New Music: Our brain on Atonal and Serialist Music
In his book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain bluntly describes a concert audience’s reaction when listening to atonal and serial music stating, “It hurts their ears.” This statement implies that the presence of tonality plays a significant role in our enjoyment of music. This paper will offer some insight into why our brains reject the sounds of atonal and serial music. Why naturally, do our brains cognitively and emotionally process this new music with a tonal lens?
Our Western Culture is engrained in the language of tonal music with an acquired, acculturated schema and expectations in their minds. Audiences automatically bring their anticipations to music and expect “the pleasures derived from a straight-forward resolution of harmonic tension.” (Jourdain, 1997) In opposition to these desires, Schoenberg stated in his “Theory of Harmony” that "tonality is no natural law of music, eternally valid" and in his music renounced the idea of a tonal centre “treating dissonances like consonances.” (Ribe, 1987) However, by employing the 12 tones of the chromatic scale in his twelve-tone music, Hindemath’s proposition was correct when saying, “listeners would bring tonality to music whether Schoenberg and his followers liked it or not.” (Jourdain, 1997), Ribe explains how the phenomenon of the octave is “the fundamental "unit" in terms of which our sense of hearing measures the quality-the degree of tension or dissonance-of all other intervals.” Because an octave is produced by vibrations of strings producing the simple ratio of 2.1, our mind constantly refers to this state of minimal tension thus creating what Ribe says to be the "natural measure” of consonance and dissonance. (Ribe, 1987) Throughout our lives, our auditory cortex has created a conception of certain frequencies of sound, some being categorized as dissonant, others (as we have seen with the octave) consonant. The concept of critical band dissonance explains how the excessive use of chromaticism in 12-tone music causes discomfort in the ear. Jourdain explains how “by falling so close together along the cochlea, the two sounds upset each other’s perception.
The 12 tone system relies on the relations of individual tones to one another rather than a larger parallel whole, of which Huron states that Schoenberg created tone rows with an aim to “avoid evoking a sense of key.” In tonal music, our mind is accustomed to the hierarchy of the diatonic scale in which Lerdahl (Hicks, 1991) states: “every note has not just an order based numerical relationship to the stating note (tonic) but also a specific tendency to move directly or indirectly in relation to that starting note; hence, unlike twelve-tone rows, diatonic scales are function-based rather than order-based.) So the listener hears the same notes, yet automatically will strive to find a tonic within to relate all the successive notes to. He explains the without a "tree-like" structure, in which “every idea can be connected to a larger branch”, music cannot be processed and remembered by the listener. Lerdahl concludes that without the ability to comprehend the music, the value of the music is lost.(Hicks, 1991) In relation to this, there is evidence that form is more difficult for the listener to comprehend with the absence of tonality. This is proven in Helen Daynes work, where participants listened to works by Clementi, Schoenberg and Berio while documenting in successive diaries their identification to the various parameters of the pieces. It was shown that the participants needed subsequent times to listen to the atonal pieces in order to decipher the form and even repetition. Perle confirms this by stating there is a “high degree of interdependence between the various dimensions of a tonal composition, such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre and form. (Daynes, 2007)
This absence of a tonal background on which a hierarchical structure of consonance and dissonance can rely, prevents the concept of “tonal motion” which Ribe describes as, “the sense that the notes are in motion, that the music is "going somewhere...the variation of musical tension which arises from the intrinsic dissonances of the successive intervals.Tonal motion is therefore directed: it is always felt as motion toward or away from some state of tension or relaxation.” He further explains “Like musical motion, human action is inherently directed: it proceeds through alternations of desire and satisfaction, striving and fulfillment, tension and release. Music and human action thus have the same forms and are characterized by the same polarities. This, I would suggest, is what Aristotle meant when he said (in Book VIII of the Politics) that music "imitates" human character.” (Ribe, 1987) As a result, there is no true beginning and as a result, no goal of the music because the listener never starts from somewhere. Lévi-Strauss writes that serial music "is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain . . . who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination." (Hicks, 1991) Huron explains in his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation that musicians enjoy when they can use their learned schemas to predict what will happen next in a piece. He says this is comparable to the “psychological gratification of being right about the future” when someone exclaims “I told you so.” (Huron,2006) Our mind remembers through memories the contrast and yearning between tension and release in life and music. When we do not hear a 12 tone piece resolve a dissonance from a consonant, this places a strain on our ears and our expectations are thwarted.
There is evidence also that our speech reinforces our concept of tonality in our brain in the nature of forming linear sequences. Both speech and music share syntactic commonalities “how basic lexical subunits are combined to form words, how words are combined to form phrasesand how phrases are combined to form sentences. In music…how tones combine to form chords, how chords combine to form chord progressions and how the resulting keys or tonal areas are regulated in terms of structured movement from one to another. “ (Patel,2008) Lerdahl terms much of 20th century music to contain “cognitively opaque musical structures where there is a significant discrepancy between the compositional grammar ...and the cognitive grammar possessed by the listener.” (McAdams, 1987) These facts explain how this music was an entirely new language. Schoenberg's words perhaps help us understand his intentions behind his compositional methods stating, “I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words.” (ThinkExist.com)
How does one come to enjoy this seemingly incomprehensible language of music? Schoenberg stated that "composing with twelve tones [is]…a method demanding logical order and organization, of which comprehensibility should be the main result.” (Hicks, 1991) The concept of familiarity arises in Daynes studies stating by “increasing familiarity, ratings of pleasant emotions heard in the music by listeners increased, and ratings of negative emotions heard in the music decreased: listeners found some pieces less unsettling and disconcerting with familiarity. (Daynes, 2007)During this familiarization process, the brain creates new schemas and through subsequent hearings, the schemas are transferred to our long term memory which is then referred to when experiencing the same type of music in the future. The term schema can be defined as "A mental preconception of the habitual course of events."(Huron, 2006) Thus, only through exposure can one learn this new musical language. Through experimenting with musicians as well as non-musicians in her study, Daynes concludes that “If musical training increases listeners’ emotional responses to certain music, and emotional responses to music are a primary motivator for engagement in music, then this would appear to provide additional justification for music- education activities such as pre-concert talks or the provision of program notes.” (Daynes, 2007) Perhaps, thorough consistent exposure and cognitively creating new schemas while listening to this music we can expand our overall intelligence.