Can music survive without listening grammars? Studies in the perception of atonality

Adam Ockelford

in Applied Musicology

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199607631
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191747687 | DOI:
Can music survive without listening grammars? Studies in the perception of atonality

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This chapter uses zygonic theory to investigate how listeners respond to some forms of western music written since the beginning of the 20th century that consciously eschew certain of the structural principles that composers had previously adopted—in particular, ‘tonality’. Currently the preserve of a tiny minority of enthusiasts, we consider whether such ‘new’ music has the capacity ever to succeed in attracting wider, non-specialist audiences. The results of two experiments are reported: one using the ‘probe-tone’ technique to evaluate the perceptibility of 12-tone rows; the other involving the musical savant Derek Paravicini in attempting to learn a tonal and an atonal piece of otherwise equivalent complexity. The results show that, while the avoidance of repetition (‘antistructure’) appears to be perceptible, listeners typically imbue so-called ‘atonal’ music with tonal qualities: hearing unintended implications in the music as a result of wider stylistic experience.

Keywords: atonality; tonality; structure; antistructure; zygonic theory; 12-tone row; Derek Paravicini; probe-tone

Chapter.  17169 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Music Theory and Analysis

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