The continuing value of tonality in music

2 December, 2010

I posted this in a forum as a response to Alex Ross’s recent column “Why Do We Hate Classical Music?“, in the Guardian:

I’m afraid I find Ross’s argument hackneyed, as well as a bit confused.

First, the problem of new artists versus old masters. This isn’t unique to music at all. In fact the only exception to the rule I can think of is cinema, in which the mass audience generally dismisses anything over 20 years old. But then, in that field, there have been undeniable technical advances which make most earlier films look primitive – there isn’t really comparable technicological drift in other fields.

Second, the comparisons in other fields are in many respects invalid. Architects and painters in particular rely on an extremely small group of patrons for their success (or failure), whereas music really needs a mass audience.

Third, you will actually find people who disagree with the Modernist “icons”, despite the weight of conventional wisdom. For instance, we had a debate on the merits of Picasso in this forum earlier this year. I think a number of these icons remain so because of the strenuous vocalisations of a tiny minority, rather than their inherent values.

At the core of Ross’s piece is the same old controversy about “outdated” tonality suppressing “historically inevitable” atonality. If it is suppressed, it’s because people want it suppressed. And in my listening experience, it’s not even because atonal music is difficult, but because it’s boring. If the notes occur because of some extra-musical schema, their harmonic relationship is essentially random, and thus meaningless. And even outside this consideration, atonalists seem to me generally incapable of constructing a rhetorical or dramatic flow to a piece that makes it engaging. (But this is something even modern tonalists seem to lack.)

Indeed, it’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s. … If the human ear were instinctively hostile to dissonance, these and 1,000 other Hollywood productions would have failed.

This is a junk argument, partly because music accompanying a dramatic visual experience is processed differently to “pure” music, and mostly because atonal music in film always represents or evokes an alienating, horrific, or inhuman experience. It does this because it sounds “wrong”, and I would argue this wrongness stems from a cause that is biological, not “merely” cultural. (Inverted commas around “merely”, because I disagree with the Modernist idea that culture, particularly Western culture, must be undermined and overthrown).

Here are my thoughts on the biological necessity of tonally-based music:

1) Humans are wired to be pattern-finders. Presented with any complex, apparently chaotic system, we look for patterns and meanings. So strong is this instinct that we even find patterns and meanings in places where they don’t exist.

Music is complex, particularly classical music, and we derive pleasure from identifying and following its patterns, regardless of whether we identify these patterns as emotions or technical phenomena. There is an element of trust involved. We want to believe that there is some conscious intent behind the meanings we discover (just as we want to believe in God). For this reason, we have limited patience for music derived, or apparently derived, by chance.

2) Perhaps more controversially, I believe humans are programmed to find specific meanings in tonal relationships.

These meanings are both emotional and spatial. Two notes, the second a tone higher than the first, form a relationship which we cannot help but take as implying a change of elevation both physical and emotional. If the order of the notes is reversed, it must represent a decline or a reduction both physical and emotional. These meanings have value and interest to us, in as much as they are analogous to information about the real world.

If we introduce more notes, the meaning becomes more complex, thus more interesting and valuable. The use of several different tonalities/harmonies in close proximity brings a new dimension, which I suggest implies the simultaneous existence of multiple viewpoints, or places, in other words the complexities of community, or geography.

I assume you can see where I’m going with this. Tonality is a grid on which we can plot meaning. If we take away the grid, we are left with parts which are unrelated. Unrelated parts do not have meaning. Things without meaning are not interesting.

All this is not to say that tonal music cannot be incredibly boring, of course! The minimalists abuse tonality in another way, by repetition, but that’s an argument for another time.


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