Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Cognition of Stability in Atonal Music in Teenagers with No Musical Experience

Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Cognition of Stability in Atonal Music in Teenagers with No Musical Experience

Article excerpt

Musical understanding arising from any musical stimulus is generally a complex task, as it is the product of cognition, of the subsequent emotional response, as well as of the complementary interaction between cognitive and aesthetic understanding (Eggebrecht, 2010). Levinson's (1997) Statement and Elaboration of Concatenationism suggests that musical understanding is achieved when listeners are able to distinguish between four separate yet interrelated points: (a) comprehension on a small scale, (b) enjoyment of the successive parts of a piece of music, and their relationship, (c) the way in which the parts interrelate, and (d) the appreciation of the musical value of individual parts and the cogency of their succession.

The body of knowledge on musical understanding is not complete without considering Architectonicism, the ability to grasp large-scale musical form and structure that enhances musical appreciation (Levinson, 1997, 2006) and, according to Kivy (2001), translates into intellectual pleasure rather than musical pleasure. Hence, this type of listening experience always involves the unfolding of successive events (expectation-delay-resolution), where sound stimuli are perceived by the listener as being inconclusive and ambiguous, that is, psychological formalism. As a result, the listener will feel the urge to clarify the ambiguity in order to experience satisfaction (Meyer, 1956).

Listener expectations can unleash distinct emotional states. According to Huron, the emotions evoked ". . . involve five functionally distinct physiological systems: imagination, tension, prediction, reaction and appraisal. Each of these systems can evoke responses independently" (Huron, 2006, p. 7). Huron considers that these issues may to a great extent point to the difficulty of understanding the musical message, and indeed this difficulty is further increased when the analysis focuses on atonal contemporary music, that is, 20th and 21st century music, which is marked by a lack of formal structuring and the unconventional use of musical parameters, such as dissonance, rhythm, timbre, or melody intrinsic difficulties.

Given the breadth of the concept, for the purpose of this study, the term "atonal" is restricted to music that "rejects tonal functions and relationships" (Alain, 1981, p. 109; von der Weid, 1997, p. 35), and is mainly represented by the styles of the Second Viennese School composers (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) and their music composed "from 1908 until the dodecaphonic system was developed in 1923" (Bosseur, 1996, p. 20). This may explain both the lack of popularization of contemporary music and the limited exposure of the population to this type of music, namely, its extrinsic difficulties. Nevertheless, it is ". . . the logical culmination of a tendency that started during Romanticism" (Bennett, 2003, p. 26).

The scientific literature in the field of atonal comprehension manifests the aforementioned intrinsic (cognitive difficulty) and extrinsic difficulties (lack of familiarity and exposure). According to some authors (Lerdahl & Jackendoff, 1983; Raffman, 2003), the inability to understand this type of music is due to the fact that the listener lacks a measure of relative pitch stability. He or she is unable to accept the absence of tonal centers or to establish a regular metrical hierarchy, for example.

Difficulties Caused by Auditory Habits

Another group of authors (Hargreaves, 1986; Meyer, 1956; Zajonc, 1968) believe that the limited dissemination of atonal pieces is the result of poor listening habits. As such, listeners are unable to refer to past experiences, and their lack of reference points provokes a rejection of atonal music because they fail to understand it. In this vein, Krumhansl (1990) indicates that the primary reason behind a lack of reference points (cognitive opacity) is that musical cognition inclines toward forms of tonal structuring in acoustic material. …

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