Let me emphasize immediately that the pleasing qualities of consonant chords and intervals, and the power of tonal relationships in general, are not arbitrary constructs. They were determined empirically, over the course of centuries. And they are firmly rooted in the laws of acoustical physics, with frequency ratios and a natural phenomenon called the harmonic series (or overtone series) playing vital roles. This is why Leonard Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard University (published in book form as The Unanswered Question), devoted considerable time to a discussion of the harmonic series, and why he said, “I believe that from… Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal.” Or to put it another way, the origins of tonality lie not in a set of inventions and decisions but in the fundamental nature of sound.
To be clear: Tonal music contains lots of dissonance. If you were to string together all the dissonant chords in a piece by Bach (or Schubert or Tchaikovsky or any other composer of tonal music) with no other chords between, the effect would loosen your fillings. But the dissonances in tonal music are never strung together that way, because the specific function of dissonance in tonal music is to provide tension, and that tension, in whatever degree it is established, is always resolved by a return to consonance. Indeed, the true genius of the tonal system is that in any given piece it enables a composer to combine the power and momentum of harmonic progressions with the simultaneous manipulation of melodic material, in ways that create the impression of a narrative, a dramatic structure complete with characters, rhetoric, direction, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate resolution.
So, pleasing sounds, striking contrasts, coherent dramatic structures based on expressive musical elements that form clear (if sometimes complex) relationships and patterns — for more than 200 years this remarkable system served as the unquestioned foundation of Western music, the foundation on which the works of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods were all built. From Vivaldi to Mahler, Bach to Verdi, Mozart to Mussorgsky, Beethoven to Faure, countless composers of every conceivable individual and national style shared the basic framework of tonality; they spoke what was essentially a common musical language. Is the enduring popularity of these composers’ works unrelated to that musical language? Is the still-central role of these works in our musical life an accident, a matter of chance or good public relations? No, and no. Is it fair to say that the powerful and perennial emotional appeal of tonal music reflects its extraordinary capacity to meet our oh-so-human musical expectations, to satisfy our longings for beauty, comfort, and meaning? Yes, indeed.
[With respect to the 20th century atonal music] …[I]t led ultimately to a 50-year modernist reign in the world of Western classical music, a reign in which to have any hope of being taken seriously by the critical and academic communities, composers were obligated, regardless of their specific styles and techniques, to avoid traditional tonal procedures and the comforts of consonance and to accept that dissonance was king.
Now, it’s true that we often add salt and hot spices to our food to enhance its flavor and heighten contrasts, and it’s important to remember that some people like their food much hotter and spicier than others. I should emphasize here — and I can’t emphasize strongly enough — that there are many contemporary composers, along with a host of not-so-contemporary composers, who have in varying degrees made use of 12-tone techniques and atonal procedures to write richly expressive and, indeed, powerfully moving and beautiful works…
It’s true as well that harsh elements can be a tool of great visual art, and that much great literature makes use of disturbing images or harrowing episodes, or both. But is there a chef on the planet who suggests swallowing a tablespoon of salt for an appetizer and following it with a bowl of Tabasco for an entree before washing it all down with a cup of vinegar? We know from listening to tonal music that dissonance can be wonderfully useful when it’s employed imaginatively. It can enhance and even create meaning. But in and of itself, dissonance is something that people fundamentally don’t like — that’s its very definition. When composers nonetheless demand that their listeners endure dissonance at great length and without letup, it’s hard not to see that demand as something spiteful, as evidence of a musical philosophy that is stubbornly aggressive, even hostile. And it’s easy to understand why that philosophy has never proved terribly popular with the concert-going public.
The primary proposition in defense of avant-garde music of the relentlessly dissonant and persistently unpopular variety has always been that, through exposure and familiarity, we often come to appreciate, and even love, things that initially confuse or displease us. Here what we might call “the Beethoven Myth” comes into play. “Beethoven was misunderstood in his time,” the argument goes, “but now the whole world recognizes his genius. I am misunderstood in my time, therefore I am like Beethoven.” This reasoning, unfortunately, has been the refuge of countless second- and third-rate talents. Beethoven ate fish, too. If you eat fish, are you like Beethoven? But there’s a much graver flaw in the argument: Beethoven was not misunderstood in his time. Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the world in his time, and the most admired. And if there were those who didn’t “get” his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces. In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false. It’s difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a masterpiece that was not appreciated as such either while its composer was alive or within a relatively short period after his death…
Inevitably, however, we return to the fact that there’s something basic to human nature in the perception of “pleasing sounds,” and in the strength of the tonal structures that begin and end with those sounds. Blue has remained blue to us over the centuries, and yellow yellow, and salt has never started tasting like sugar. With or without physics, consonances are consonances because to most people they sound good, and we abandon them at great risk. History will say — history says now — that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure. Deeply flawed at their musical and philosophical roots, unloving and oblivious to human limits and human needs, these movements left us with far too many works that are at best unloved, at worst detested.
The good news is that there are many composers today who, despite the uncertain footing, are striving valiantly, and successfully, to write works that are worthy of our admiration and affection. They write in a variety of styles, but the ones who are most successful are those who are finding ways — often by assimilating ethnic idioms and national popular traditions — to invest their music with both rhythmic vitality and lyricism. They’re finding ways to reconnect music to its eternal roots in dance and song. They’re also rediscovering, in many cases, the potential of tonal harmonies, and this seems like a positive step.
Although the author is not an Objectivist and I don’t agree with everything he says, there is much of value to Objectivists with an interest in musical aesthetics. Read the whole thing (original version or printer-friendly version). Via ALDaily.