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Hearing secret harmonies

Just passed on to me was an interesting tidbit in today's Science Times. A study of college students showed that listeners prefer harmonies to dissonance. That's no surprise. The surprise: the longer a subject had studied a musical instrument, the more true this was. That is, more musical training meant a stronger preference for what one might call conservative music.

So is the appeal of harmony and tonality is actually learned, not inborn? Does this contradict the theory that our preferences are developed in utero? Or is it just one more inconclusive study?

Edited to add: On reflection, one more possibility presents itself: College students who have studied musical instruments are simply more likely to prefer a certain kind of music than other students who have not.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 25, 2010; 9:49 AM ET
Categories:  news , random musings  
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In the right context, I love a good, juicy, jangling dissonance. I even love Moses und Aron. I could have skewed he whole study for them.

Posted by: ScottRose | May 25, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Well, Mozart spent two years very carefully preparing his set of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn, and those string quartets are full of very carefully treated dissonances, as is his very great G minor Symphony (#40) and several other later works. See, for example, the slow movements to K.428 and the G minor Symphony.

Hadyn also had substantial musical training and experience by the time he composed the very rich chromatic introduction to his late oratorio, The Creation.

J.S. Bach, too, preferred a very rich chromatic palette in his works, including some of his early works such as his great Cantata #4, composed when he was about 22 years of age, as well as his supremely great chromatically rich, extended masterpieces of his mature years.

In the twentieth century, the superbly trained German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s later works became carefully chromatically enriched after he studied with Anton Webern in 1941-42, even though he rejected the twelve-tone system then in use by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and a few others. Listen for the very carefully treated rich chromaticism of his late Symphonies #6-8; as well as the superb orchestration based upon his study of R. Strauss (who also progressively chromatically enriched his works as he aged).

The cases of J.S. Bach and the first Viennese School masters alone (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) would certainly seem to disprove any theory that more musical training means a stronger preference for “conservative” or less chromatic music.

Nice try.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 25, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

The late great composer, author, conductor, pianist, lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky relates an experiment he tried on his daughter Elektra. Wondering whether the enjoyment of dissonance (which he possessed in spades) was due to conditioning, he claims that he made sure that baby Elektra heard only dissonant music. He says he wanted to find out whether dissonance itself would become comforting to her, based on her surroundings. The outcome of the "experiment" is dubious: according to N.S., she ended up being "completely amusical".

Posted by: todbrody1 | May 30, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

The test was apparently composed of tests of intervals which the listeners judged to be preferable or not, and not musical excerpts. It's not really fair to extrapolate out or label as "conservative" musical tastes from listening only to chords played out of context.

Posted by: marcgeelhoed | June 1, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

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