This Is Why People Hate Modern Classical Music
More than one new music aficionado brought to my attention an article from the Telegraph regarding the cognitive difficulties presented by contemporary music. If you haven’t read it, please do.
As far as I can tell, the work it describes is a credible piece of social science: David Huron and Ani Patel, two music cognition specialists whose opinions I respect, are called upon to corroborate Philip Ball’s book The Music Instinct, and they give it their respective stamps of approval. However, there are a couple of criticisms I’d like to level at the statements made in this article. For one thing, as Timothy Jones points out, cultural conditioning may account for some of Ball’s findings. Moreover, is Ball’s conclusion really so revolutionary? Of course music with readily perceptible patterns is easier to grok. Crossword puzzles consisting of thematically related clues are, I imagine, easier to complete than the other kind.
I’m perfectly willing to concede that tonal music, with its reliance on conventionalized expectation-forming patterns derived, in not very direct ways, from the harmonic series lends itself more naturally to human apprehension than post-common-practice music. But that’s beside the point of music’s importance as a human endeavor, isn’t it?
Arguments that one type of music or another is the most “natural” don’t carry a whole lot of weight with me. As Schoenberg put it in a letter to Joseph Yasser, if you were to go out into the street and behave “naturally”—tearing off your clothes and shoveling squirrels into your mouth with your hands—people would think you were a lunatic. We do a lot of things that aren’t natural, often with good reason; it’s natural to allow weak children to die, for instance.
I would submit that the natural and the humane are sometimes at odds in music as well: Respecting the intelligence of one’s audience, trying to furnish listening situations that prompt speculation and the consideration of new perspectives, may be unnatural—but it’s exceedingly human.