Placing Taste in Atonality: Confusion in the Ears of Western Music Listeners

14 Jun

Atonal music has been widely discussed by music theorists, philosophers, and even psychologists. But from an aesthetic perspective, how can we explain taste in or preference towards atonal music? Here, I would like to examine why many listeners find atonal music remorselessly uncomfortable  and propose several reasons on how one might be able to find this music pleasing. By using Peggy Zeglin Brand’s model of taste and a piano piece by Gyorgy Ligeti, I attempt to account for atonal-music preference. But before we look into the philosophical aspects of this argument, it is essential to understand how musical preferences are culturally conditioned:

** It is necessary to define “atonal music.” Atonality does not refer to brief instances of dissonance which are intermixed within a grander tonal framework. Rather, the compositional practice is used to produce works that are entirely independent from the tonal schema of western music.

Tonality, Learning, and Culture

Studies have demonstrated that our musical expectations are shaped by cultural norms. We are able to identify familiar chord progressions, melodies, and certain songs through exposure to music. Research has even demonstrated that passive exposure to culture-specific music, stabilizes and internalizes a model of tonal harmony and expectation within its listeners. Even non-musicians and the musically unacquainted can identity when a song comes “back to home” without being able to describe the sensation with musical terminology. Additional studies have demonstrated that children, even by the age of five, can identify when music strays from these familiar harmonic progressions. This suggests that the onset of cultural influence begins at a young age. Since the majority of popular music, music that is accessible to the public and widely distributed in all types of media, is comprised of tonal progressions, how can music that does not use these compositional idioms become favorable? Can we explain how an individual who is accustomed to tonal music find atonal music pleasurable?

It helps to have an understanding of what distinguishes atonal music from tonal music, before we can begin to tackle this dilemma:

What is atonality?

Atonality is ascribed to the absence of a tonal center, or in non-musical terms, the lack of a central note to which the piece inherently gravitates towards. Thus atonal music has no resolution, and consequently lacks the intra-musical material that predisposes our expectations to experience these resolutions. The music is free of, to quote Pierre Schaeffer, “residual signification” — any external meanings or associations that the listeners might draw upon during listening (under the theoretical conditions  of atonality, listener’s are unable to draw upon the experience of tonal western music). Thus, advocates of atonal music assert that the intrinsic properties of the piece become the areas of contemplation, appreciation, and ultimately where listener’s must place their taste.

Ligeti’s Piano Etude No. 1 “Desordre”

One of the more salient examples of atonality can be found in Ligeti’s first Piano etude “Desordre.”  Before examining the piece’s harmonic components, let us watch Giuseppe Andaloro’s dazzling rendition of the etude.

Upon first glance at the score, the source of the chaotic and stormy texture becomes apparent: the right hand plays only white keys (the key signature contains no sharps nor flats) while the left hand plays only black keys (the key signature has five sharps). Those who are familiar with the lay-out of the keyboard will know that smashing white and black keys in random combination often produces undesirable sounds.

Though it might not be initially evident, Desordre, much like tonal western music contains a musical theme:

The theme is composed with predetermined grouped eighth notes. As outlined by the above sample, groupings of 3 + 5, then 3 + 5, then 5 + 3, then 7 are used in the right hand. This theme reoccurs throughout the piece but undergoes several transpositions. However, the real source of all the dissonance and chaos comes from the synchronization of the right and left hand — each time the right hand is repeated one of the final eighth notes is removed. Thus, the left and right hands constantly wind in and out of sync with each other. Try listening to Giuseppe Andaloro’s performance again and focus on the melody that is outlined by the accented notes — you will notice that the melody is consistent throughout the piece’s entirety and slowly moves out of time with the harmony in the left hand.

Brand’s Model of Taste

In her publication Disinterestedness and Political Art, Peggy Zeglin Brand proposed a model of taste that is comprised of two components: an interested stance and a disinterested stance. She originally conceived the paradigm to explain taste amongst visual art, yet I argue that the model is also applicable to art that lies in non-visual modalties. The paradigm encompasses both what is a considered a “masculine view” (disinterested) and “feminist view” (interested):

The disinterested approach requires the viewer to to perceive an object in isolation by ignoring outside associations through a conscious effort. Thus, the listener inhibits any tendency to reference past experiences that might supplement or detract from the art in question.

The interested approach encourages the viewer to draw upon outside associations, thus creating a holistic awareness of both the art in question and extra-qualities that might correlate to the viewing experience.

Brand concludes that the two approaches cannot be executed simultaneously.

Brand, Ligeti, and Atonality

Using Brand’s model, I will attempt to explain how taste can be derived from a) the specific case of Ligeti’s piano etude and b) the general circumstance of atonal music.

By taking a disinterested stance:

As atonality is meant to strip away prior musical expectations of a work, such as tonal resolution and progression, the listening experience becomes the journey, not the destination. Our ability to predict where the piece is moving is rendered useless — thus the composer has structured their work to favor a disinterested approach. In this context, atonal pieces must be viewed in isolation. How might we view a work in isolation?  Here is one way:

1) Thematic development

As we examined above, Desordre is derived from a theme. This allows “desordre” to be perceived in an isolated state: the listener is expected to examine the intra-musical qualities of the work, as approaching the piece with extra-musical knowledge, such as that of western tonal harmony, proves to be useless. Therefore,  monitoring the theme of the work requires listeners to expend their attention only to the material that is presented, and discourages any attempt that might be made to take previous listening experience, such as that of tonal music, and applying it to atonal works.

By taking an interested stance:

1) Programmaticism

Ligeti attempts to convey feelings or expressions of “disorder”  through the disheveled composition of “Desordre.” Thus as the audience, we must approach the work with our conceptions and experiences of these extra-musical feelings and ideas. What is disorder? How can we experience it? Perhaps Ligeti can give us insight.

2) The Genre and Form

As mentioned, this particular piece is an etude (“study” in french). Therefore listeners should generally expect the piece to be difficult and technical. We would hold different expectations if the piece were a Piano Sonata, Prelude, Mazurka, etc.  Therefore both form and genre influence our expectations and require extra-musical knowledge.


1) Music is fluid, cinematic, and ephemeral, and thus, Brand’s model might be appropriate only for stagnant, visual media such as painting or sculpture.Though I initially saw this as problematic, upon further contemplation I found the sequential properties of music to benefit Brand’s model. Yes, I agree with Brand that an interested and disinterested approach can not be obtained simultaneously, but this does not mean that an object of art can not be viewed multiple times with each approach being executed during different sections. This offers not only multiple ways to listen to a single piece of music, but similarly, offers multiple musical experiences from one piece!

2) The interested explanations I propose are specialized and subjective to Ligeti’s piece (thematic development + the genre of the etude). But yet, this is what comprises an interested approach —  for extra-associations and meanings will vary between the audience’s experiences and the art in question. Thus no two “interested approaches” will ever be congruent.

3) Brand’s model is not exclusive to atonal music — it can also be applied to tonal music. Yet tonal music contains intra-musical elements  that create a momentum in which the pieces seems to “move towards.” Because these elements are absent in atonal music the listener has no harmonic foundation or ground work to understand the music. Therefore appreciation and taste in atonality must be derived from intra-musical materials that do not reflect tonal relationships (such as a melody or motif) or extra-musical materials (such as conceptual representation in music) — it is the dualistic nature of Brand’s paradigm that captures this ability so perfectly.

References and Further Reading:

For those interested in 12-tone music, I would recommend DIANA RAFFMAN’s Is Twelve-Tone Music Artistically Defective?


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