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02.14.12

From the Wall Street Journal’s Michaeleen Doucleff:

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an “appoggiatura.”

Doucleff is explaining this in the context of discovering why Adele’s Someone Like You has a physiological effect on many listeners (not me). The tension-release paradigm is old hat for most musicians. But this physiological response to dissonance resolving to consonance explains something to me about the way I hear non-tonal music.

When I first encountered non-tonal music I had a resistance to accepting that much dissonance. It was difficult to make sense of music that did not have the foundation of tonic and dominant. Nonetheless, tonality was something I could get over. It was the lack of emotional connection with the music that I really missed.1

Not too much later I discovered non-tonal music that does not strictly avoid consonance, and my ear got very good at leaping from consonance to consonance — or dopamine squirt to dopamine squirt as Dr. Sloboda concludes. Music with drones, such as Berio’s Sequenza VII, or music with non-western scales such as many of Giacinto Scelci’s pieces, or music that combines both such as Masakazu Natsuda’s West or Evening Song in Autumn became, and in many ways still are, my favorites.

Something about serial music always left me cold. I always gravitate toward Karel Husa, Charles Ives, Chen Yi, rather than the Second Viennese School or the integral serialists. I think that may be because any consonance at all triggers my endocrine system to fire some pleasure juice into my brain. I am willing to go a long time without consonance, and I’m willing to let that moment of “resolution” be very brief, or possibly imagined. All I know is that when it happens the feeling is rapturous and addictive.


  1. Only now do I realize that the music to which I was listening — Schoenberg, Babbitt, and probably Cage — was designed to remove the emotional connection in lieu of mathematical or chance practices. Except Schoenberg, who was merely failing at writing non-tonal Romantic music.