Most People Like Post-Tonal Music

I had the misfortune to have lunch with an actual cognitive scientist from Canada— I don’t remember his name— who trotted out the same solipsistic arguments.  He hated post-tonal music and tried to argue the point that post-tonal music is completely invalid and cognitive science shows us so.  That tonal music is inherently biological and hard-wired into our brains.  That the human brain is incapable of understanding post-tonal music because it does not conform to the inherent biological hard-wired and proven-by-cognitive-science syntax that we need to truly understand and appreciate music.

Me: Okay, then, why do *I* like post-tonal music?

Him: I don’t know.  Most people don’t.

Me: Sure they do.

Him: Really?

Me: Sure.  Any time you watch a horror movie or science fiction film and post-tonal music appears, people understand it and love it.

Him: Oh, well, then, it goes to show that post-tonal music can’t communicate a full range of human emotions, certainly not any positive ones, like love.

Me: But that’s not what you said.  You said it wasn’t *understandable*.  That cognitive science proves it’s incomprehensible.  Now you’re backtracking, conceding the point that it is comprehensible, and now saying that it’s merely incapable of showing a full range of emotions.  Well, so is tonality.  You can’t express terror or alien invasions in D major, can you?

Him: Awkward change of subject.

Completely frustrating and impassive conversation for the rest of lunch.  We were never in touch again.

I find it amazing how many legitimate so-called scientists want to throw actual science, logic and reason out the window and instead use their authority as scientists to make an argument-by-authority to validate their prejudices about music.  Many of them love tonal music dearly; it’s so sacred to them that they are willing to absolutely and utterly upend what they know they should be saying and doing as scientists on the subject— to confirm that music is complex and even complex, post-tonal music probably has a logic and syntax that is innately comprehensible to the brain, or at least acknowledge that the jury is still out on the question— and instead go into full-on worship mode at the altars of Beethoven and Brahms busts.  Many of them won’t begin to concede to others the same kind of faith-based tunnel visions when it comes to other people’s worship of gods and practices of religions that they reserve for themselves when it comes to the worship of tonal classical music.

I know I’m out of lock step with the vast majority of people in western culture, but I find it very difficult to listen to 90% major-minor, 7% diminished and 3% augmented as my harmonic palette for forty-five minutes, or an hour, or three hours. I just can’t. Post-tonal music drives other people nuts with its complexity. Tonal music drives me nuts with its paucity— its paucity of harmonic choices. I get so bored with functional tonality. I really, really, truly do. I know in some circles in concert music culture it’s basically farting in church to acknowledge that common practice period music doesn’t really do it for you. But there are a lot of us out here, more than you might think, who became attracted to concert music because of all that stuff that happened *after* 1900, not before, and who just sort of nod along and pay lip service when everyone else drones on and on and on about the greatness of Brahms, or even Mahler, whom we’re supposed to get excited about because he ended movements in different keys than he began them in.

So is there something wrong with my brain then, because I prefer music that gives me a richness of harmonic experience? Because the harmonic dimension is that important to me? I know that even the great 20th and 21st century composers say, dutifully, that we need to respect, know and even love the common practice period masters. I’ll concede the respect and the knowing. But I cannot love music that is ubiquitously triadic in its harmonic constructions and never anything else for any great length of time.

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