This article considers the paradox of why lay people can appreciate modern visual art yet regard contemporary music as noise. Why do art lovers look at Picasso’s Guernica (1937), for instance, and proclaim it a masterpiece and yet when they listen to a piece like Ligeti’s Atmosphères (1961), they consider it noise? I have always been intrigued by this dichotomy. To address this question, I shall consider the spatial nature of painting versus the temporal quality of music, modes of visual and aural perception (and how they influence the aesthetic attitudes of viewers and listeners), and Gestalt theory. The goal of this article is not to arrive at a dispositive answer to the question I have asked but to pose possible responses that can form the basis for further inquiry and research.
At my daughter’s high school graduation ceremony in 2008, a classmate of hers performed “Laurie’s Song” from Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land (1952–54). It was a beautiful rendition, but my sister, who was also in attendance, remarked later that she didn’t care for the piece. When I asked her why, she responded that it was too weird, and not being a musician, she really couldn’t clarify this reaction any further other than to say it didn’t sound right to her. So, I proceeded to act like the snobby, educated composer and extolled the virtues of the song, pointing out the smooth modulations, occasional chromatic harmonies, and so on, and in the course of my sermonizing, accused my sister of having, like so many other untrained listeners, “nineteenth-century ears.”1My apologies for sprinkling terms such as “untrained listeners” or “nineteenth-century ears” to describe those who are not formally schooled in the musical arts. This is not to condescend or belittle, but merely to differentiate them from listeners who have had more experience with contemporary music. She was offended by my reaction, so in the interest of family harmony, I dropped the matter. Nevertheless, I couldn’t understand why or how she could find a Copland song (hardly at the vanguard of atonal music) as verging on the unlistenable, yet enjoy the surrealistic artwork of Salvador Dalí when visiting the Salvador Dalí Museum numerous times as a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Both prior and subsequent to my brief sibling debate, I have had numerous likeminded discussions with other so-called lay listeners. Each time, the verdict on whether or not modern art or contemporary music is more palatable tilts in favor of the former.2As used in this article, “modern art” is a general reference to post-nineteenth-century art, and not an attempt to denote a specific stylistic genre or period that art historians refer to as “Modern Art.” Essentially, the word “modern” should be used interchangeably with “contemporary.” As such, the question has continued to haunt me. Why do people go out of their way to attend modern art galleries, spend record-breaking millions to purchase works from twentieth-century painters,3For example, on 14 May 2008, Triptych, 1976 by British Post-Impressionist painter Francis Bacon sold at Sotheby's contemporary art sale for €55,465 million ($86.28 million), a then record for Bacon and the “highest price paid for a postwar work of art at auction up to 2008.” See Wikipedia 2020. and otherwise devour substantial helpings of twentieth- and twentieth-first century paintings and sculptures, but at the same time, turn up their noses at—or more accurately, their ears away from—the Elliott Carters and Oliver Messiaens of this world? What is it, exactly, about Dalí’s bizarre and distorted clocks or Picasso’s disproportioned and displaced body parts that make them more appetizing to the average person4See, for example, “Melting Clocks” (1931) by Salvador Dalí and Woman with a Blue Hat (1938) by Pablo Picasso. than Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique or even, in my sister’s case, Copland’s relatively innocuous and only mildly dissonant aria? Do we apply one aesthetic standard to art and another one to music? Are there variations in the ways in which we as a society are exposed to the two disciplines that may account for this divergence? Are there physiological disparities in the ways in which we perceive and process distinct visual and aural stimuli? Or, is it simply that atonal music, as my sister so succinctly put it, is just too “weird”?
In my mind, it is likely a combination of these and other factors for this art-music divide, although any significant differences between the two disciplines from the abovementioned perspectives are more often than not counteracted by equally strong similarities. From an aesthetic perspective, while it is true that visual art and music have been distinguished by the former being classified as representative or imitative (Smith 1980) and the latter abstract,5I use the word “abstract” in this instance to denote the nonrepresentational nature of a work, as opposed to the musicologist’s or art historian’s definition of a particular style or era. over the past century or so, art has been migrating away from imitation and edging closer to—perhaps even surpassing—the nonrepresentational domain that has historically belonged to music. I believe there is a fair amount of validity to the notion that the general public has had more casual exposure to visual art, that which might be decorative or functional, but essentially exists in the background.6This is a notion first suggested to me by composer Nigel Osborne, my former composition tutor. As David Stubbs aptly asserts in the Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen (2009): “It is the visual arts, whose radical innovations have now become so familiar to mass audiences as to be practically decorative, which have been far more effortlessly assimilated, with the minimum of distress.” Then again, with the surfeit of electronic sound pummeling our twenty-first century ears, one can surely point to innumerable instances in which atonal music invades our auditory world by slinking in unawares through a back door (think of a horror film score).
As for atonal music being too weird—well, no matter how one analyzes it to appreciate its intricacy and discover its beauty, the music of Stockhausen, Boulez, Ives et al. is weird—which of course is what makes it so equally wonderful. But can’t the same be said of Pollock, Mondrian and even Van Gogh? Why is weirdness championed in one discipline but denounced in another?
So, that leaves the realms of physiology, psychology, biology, and other scientific and sociological disciplines, which theorists have used over the decades, to describe, quantify, and differentiate humans’ visual and aural experiences. And it is here where the key lies—the fundamental distinctions as to how our eyes, ears, and brains perceive and process visual and musical information. Now, given the confines of this paper and my limited scientific knowledge, it would be sheer folly to attempt a comprehensive and exhaustive discussion of even a few of the countless areas that this subject encompasses. So, in the interests of succinctness and not wishing to risk biting off more than I can intellectually chew, I will distill the answer further and hope to demonstrate that the key to answering this question lies essentially with three key aspects: space, time, and memory.7For this notion and for much of what follows in this article, I draw heavily from the principles of Gestalt psychology, which is credited to the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) and the German psychologists Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967). The basic principles of Gestalt psychology are: (1) Figure-Ground Articulation, (2) Proximity, (3) Common Fate, (4) Similarity, (5) Continuity, and (6) Closure. See Wertheimer (1945), Kohler ( 1992), and Koffka ( 2001).
Space Against Time
In his Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, Igor Stravinsky writes:
The plastic arts are presented to us in space: we receive an over-all impression before we discover details little by little and at our leisure. But music is based on temporal succession and requires alertness of memory. Consequently music is a chronologic art, as painting is a spatial art. Music presupposed before all else a certain organization in time, a chrononomy—if you will permit me to use a neologism.” (Stravinsky 2000, 28)
Stravinsky oversimplifies this distinction, as there are spatial characteristics inherent in music, just as there are chronological aspects in the process of viewing art. After all, whether we listen to music either in a concert venue, through an expensive sound system, or via cheap dime-store headphones, we do so in a defined space. And of course music has a directional component as well—someone may be practicing saxophone in the next room and our ears can tell from where it’s coming. Likewise, we can view art over a certain period of time—either in a minute, an hour, or every day if it’s a painting hanging on a wall in a dining room. However, if one accepts Stravinsky’s general premise that the defining characteristic of visual art is space, and that of music time, then I contend that going a step further in the analysis reveals that art and music exist in different contexts —art in a spatial context and music in a chronological or temporal one, which in turn affects how the brain perceives and processes visual and aural information. Consequently, an exploration of this difference, along with the Stravinsky’s assertion that music requires “an alertness of memory” will provide at least one solution to the contemporary art-music divide.
To illustrate Stravinsky’s view that we get an “over-all impression” of a piece of visual art before discovering its details “little by little,” we might begin by comparing what I call the Art Museum Experience with the Concert Hall Experience. Picture, if you’ll excuse the pun, attending a Hypothetical Museum of Modern Art (“HMMA”): once entering the gallery through an imposing, formal doorway, we are generally allowed the freedom to browse the various paintings, sculptures, drawings, and murals. Extended contemplation is encouraged, and for as long as it is desired, we may ruminate on the joys of a Mondrian or Picasso, go on to view a Cézanne or Gaugin, then go back to reconsider the Picasso. As is typical of most, if not all museum experiences, in our HMMA, we are free to roam, double-back and linger as much as we want to, and discuss with other museum attendees the artwork on hand, where to go for dinner, or even have a conversation about anything the heart desires. We may even sit and read a book or newspaper. Although not exactly festive and uproarious, and usually conducted within a certain spectrum of decorum (one can say downright stuffy at times), the museum experience is generally a relaxing, informal, and social affair. It allows one to browse, perceive and absorb.
This experience is diametrically opposed to that of attending a Hypothetical Contemporary Music Concert (“HCMC”). Any similarity ends at the moment of crossing the threshold into the concert hall through an equally formalized and imposing entryway. Strapped into a seat that may barely approach tolerable levels of comfort (especially if it is an older facility), we are asked—no, commanded—to sit still for the next 45 minutes or more, unable to move (except minimally) without disrupting the entire proceeding, inducing the ire of nearby audience members, perhaps even spoiling the artist’s performance. If the concert has an intermission, mercifully one is allowed to actually escape the confines of the (likely) preassigned seat to get some nourishment, quench a thirst, or attend to bodily functions, after which it is back in the torture chair to endure the remainder of the evening. All through this ordeal, of course, except for the intermission, we are not allowed to speak, except perhaps in hushed tones, and even then the talk must not venture beyond brief comments about the performance. And doing any reading other than snatching the occasional brief glance at the program notes is strictly verboten.
I readily admit that the above examples are a bit more colorful than the reality of the experience. But I utilize this exaggeration merely to drive home a point: namely, the HMMA patron has more control over his or her viewing experience than the HCMC attendee has over the listening experience. That said, control alone does not account for the divide between the general public’s tolerance for modern art and disdain for modern music. A person listening to recorded music, after all, has power over the process approaching that associated with a viewer of art. Whether playing a CD over the car audio system, spinning a vinyl record on the home Hi-Fi, or listening to the almighty iPod, one may pause, rewind, or advance the music within individual tracks; rearrange the order of tracks (listening to the third movement of a symphony first for example); or even skip certain selections altogether. Nevertheless, it is still the control combined with the spatial aspect of visual art that truly forms the basis of the art-music disconnect. As it will become clearer throughout this article, music as a chronological art is bound by certain inescapable elements, where dominion over the listening experience from a control perspective matters little. Simply put, control cannot overcome the constraints of time.
Returning to our day out at the HMMA for a moment, consider again the casual browsing that pervades the experience. An essential aspect of it is that in dawdling from gallery to gallery, and hall to hall, one can take in all manner of art work virtually at the same time—as one gazes at a Van Gogh, a Monet or Seurat may appear in the peripheral field of vision. What’s more, no matter how one intently stares at a painting, one cannot escape seeing other objects that surround it, the frame for one, but also the wall it hangs on, or a pedestal off to the right, or two people engaged in a conversation off to the left. Though one may concentrate more on the painting than this extraneous material, the fact remains that the information is being viewed simultaneously.
All of the elements above are important because they provide the foundation for what I described earlier as a spatial context for viewing art. When looking at a painting, one has the immediate opportunity to compare it with other objects, such as other paintings, a table, a person, or a newspaper headline. Such context, I believe, provides a kind of safety net for the viewer. In other words, it allows him or her to securely view a piece of work that might be “too weird” (returning to my sister’s assessment of Copland) or even upsetting. Viewing at one’s own pace allows for the viewer, as Stravinsky pointed out, to discover the details incrementally, in turn providing ample opportunity—or time, if I may cross terms for a moment—to decide whether or not one likes the work.
In a chronological art such as music, this is something that is difficult to accomplish. Music must be listened to sequentially rather than simultaneously. Indeed, whereas humans generally take for granted viewing multiple objects at once (for example, when comparing two items of clothing, such as whether or not to wear a certain necktie with a particular shirt), comparing two pieces of music with any degree of discrimination, or even trying to listen to a piece of music and a nonmusical sound, in anything other than chronological order, is simply not feasible. Try as one might to tune out one source of music or noise, at some point the second sound will become intrusive enough that ignoring it will be virtually impossible. An interesting consequence of this is that if the second sound, whether musical or not, rises to a level whereby one cannot discern the distinction between the two, then in fact the chronological context is destroyed and a new sound is created.
For example, imagine a listener enjoying a Mozart piano concerto at a recital when suddenly a baby several seats away starts to cry. At first, the cry may be a soft murmur, and the listener can more or less ignore it. However, as the cry gets louder, intensifies, or becomes more incessant, tuning out the intrusion becomes increasingly difficult. At some point, the person is no longer listening to Mozart but instead “Mozart With Baby Crying.” A completely new sound source is created, and one might even say that the chronological context of the listening experience is destroyed altogether. And while complete obliteration of the spatial context (or, as the Gestalt theorists might regard it, a destruction of the Figure-Ground Articulation8Simply stated, Figure-Ground Articulation in Gestalt theory refers to the brain’s ability to discern separate visual components by perceiving the difference between a figure against a background. See Pinna et al. (2018).) can likewise occur in visual art (such as superimposing one painting over another, or perhaps scribbling black marker across the face of the Mona Lisa), I propose that the threshold for “context obliteration” is a bit higher for art than for music. Two paintings can get close to each other and still retain a separateness that can be discerned by the viewer. However, an infant’s wail does not have to be so incredibly loud before transforming Mozart into “Mozart With Baby Crying” (the analysis does not quite stop here, but I will return to this concept later in the article).
In any event, if human beings are unable to tolerate listening to multiple pieces of music at once, where is the corresponding listener safety net similar to the one that visual art provides for its viewer (the opportunity to immediately and simultaneously compare the artwork with something else)? The short answer is that in a chronological context, there is no safety net but only memory. Or, to put it another way, memory becomes the safety net.
What this means is that unlike art, where a viewer can simultaneously compare an artwork to other objects (either artistic or not), musical pieces can only be listened to chronologically or sequentially, as the listener must remember what he or she heard prior to hearing the current piece. Thus, when one hears a new piece by a modern composer, he or she can only compare it to music (whether or not by the same composer) they heard before that moment, regardless of whether or not the first piece preceded the second by minutes or months. Even in a setting involving recorded music in which the listener has more or less total control over when and how often songs are played, one is unable, whether wanting to or not, to simultaneously hear several pieces at once. Consequently, one can only judge a musical work in relation to what came before in one’s hearing.
The result of all of this is that every piece of music that we listen to is done in isolation, that is, chronologically separated from all other pieces of music, and as a consequence, a listener is left on his or her own, with nothing to compare it to in the moment. I maintain that this constraint (if I may call it that) forces a state of total immersion upon the listener; there is, if I may use the phrase, the music and nothing but the music. And I believe that it is this isolation that allows music to go more deeply into the psyche, to places where visual art cannot go. And in so doing, listening to music becomes an experience that forces the brain to more closely consider its technical and emotional structures, thus making it more difficult for the listener to escape whatever it is in the music that pleases or irritates him or her.
This lack of immediate context and reliance on memory, which may prove troublesome for the lay listener when trying to understand contemporary music, may likewise explain why such music often becomes more palatable upon repeated hearings. Now that the piece is stored in a listener’s memory, he or she has a chronological context for the music itself in order to compare it to looking at the same painting twice. It may further explain why listeners accustomed to hearing contemporary music have much more tolerance, as they have a context stored in memory—in other words, the more one listens to this type of music, the easier it is to appreciate.
I should point out that the aforementioned discussion refers primarily to an intrinsic safety net. Under certain circumstances, the contemporary music listener does benefit from the security of an external safety net (one that must be superimposed on the listening experience) that functions much like that enjoyed by the art viewer. I am referring most pointedly to the audio-visual experience, and specifically to film music, in which one can discover vigorous atonal music. And yet, it is tolerated and even considered memorable by many listeners. A perfect example is the shower scene music (penned by film music composer Bernard Hermann) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). I’d wager that the screeching, staccato quarter notes played by the violins, if part of a standalone piece of music, might be considered quite jarring and even unpleasant to the lay listener if not for the accompanying visuals (as disturbing as they are). Surely, this particular music works to enhance the horrific images of that scene, but the fact remains that because a spatial context is superimposed upon the chronological one, the blow has been softened to the extent that the short segment has been emblazoned on listeners’ minds and is thus considered a classic. The images on film become the safety net for the listener, but one that is a visual, not sonic, safety net.
Spatial contexts provide more information than chronological ones, which in turn provides a greater level of comfort for the viewer. Consider once again the crying baby scenario, only this time with the infant sobbing from a distant location. The human ear with its binaural capacities can provide a wealth of information about the situation in relation to musical parameters linked with pitch, timbre, and loudness, and its directional capabilities have functioned as a major tool in human survival behavior (in indicating from which direction danger is approaching, for instance). However, by merely hearing the baby cry, a listener can determine (without additional information) that (1) it’s a baby crying, (2) approximately from where it’s coming, (3) a sense of pitch (that is, whether it falls within a high, low, or medium register), timbre, and loudness, and (4) when it might stop. There may be other data that can be gathered (for example, the type or length of crying may give some clue as to why the baby is crying), but at best, they are guesses and opinions, formed, incidentally, by remembering what kind of crying the listener may have heard babies engage in at some point in the past. By comparison, if one sees the baby crying, this visual context supplies more information in that we can (1) observe where the baby is (e.g., in a crib, on the floor, sitting on a table), (2) determine whether the baby is alone or not, (3) perhaps notice that a bottle or stuffed toy has fallen to the floor, and (4) whether or not there is an open window with snow blowing in. In short, the list of information that allows the viewer to assess the situation is virtually endless. And so it is with viewing art versus hearing music: in relation to the former, we have information about the surrounding space and environment to guide us in our perception and processing of the artwork; in relation to the latter, by contrast, we are given information linked with the moment, with the memory of previous musical works assisting us in assessing the current piece of music being played.
Before proceeding, it is worth considering the work of music critic Alex Ross (b. 1968) and that of the late Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893–1970) in relation to the ideas presented in this article. Both of these authors have written extensively on musical aesthetics in relation to modern music. In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2009), Ross observes that modern composers habitually stretch the boundaries of sound and often create noise (or the lack thereof, in the case of John Cage’s piece, 4’33”).9John Cage’s writings on silence make interesting counterpoints to the ideas proposed in this article, but exploring them are not within its scope. He also claims that dissonant music is everywhere: “Yet these sounds are hardly alien. Atonal chords crop up in jazz; avant-garde sounds appear in Hollywood film scores; minimalism has marked rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Sometimes the music resembles noise, because it is noise, or near to it, by design” (2009, 9).
In addition, Ross (2009, 9) argues—consistent with the position posed in this article—that modern classical music remains the bailiwick of learned and “cultured” circles, in other words, “. . . a largely untamed art, an unassimilated underground,” while avant-garde expressions in the other arts, conversely, are celebrated:
While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollack sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more, and while experimental works by Matthew Barney or David Lynch are analyzed in college dorms across the land, the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little perceptible impact on the outside world. (Ross 2009, 9)
For his part, Ingarden (1986) explores not only the aesthetics of classical music but its ontological and phenomenological aspects as well. In relation to music as a temporal art, Ingarden contemplates the nature of musical performance in The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity:
1. Each performance of a certain musical work is a certain individual occurrence[,] . . . developing in time and placed in it univocally. A performance begins at a specific moment, lasts for a given and measurable period of time, and ends at a specific moment. As a process, every specific performance of a musical work can take place only once. When completed, the performance can neither continue nor repeat itself. (Ingarden 1986, 10)
Although Ingarden discusses how people perceive modern classical music, and Ross deals with what modern classical music might be, neither explore why many people find listening to atonal music to be an unpleasant experience. For that, I argue that memory still holds the key.
Knowledge and Memory
Let us reconsider the “Mozart and Baby Crying” example articulated above. That notion in which two sounds can occur so closely together in time that the chronological context is effectively destroyed, and an entirely new sound emerges, can only go so far. One can imagine numerous circumstances in which the brain does not become confused when confronted by completely different aural stimuli. For instance, in our Mozart piano concerto, it is simple for even a lay listener to distinguish between the dissimilar timbres of the piano and orchestra, violins and bassoons, flutes and clarinets, or even the oboes and trombones. In fact, with a single chord, whether strummed by a solo guitar or sounded by an entire brass section, the ear can generally recognize such separate timbres. Furthermore, while the brain still acknowledges them as distinguishable, it somehow groups these sets of sounds into a unified whole, regardless as to whether or not the instruments or notes can be identified by name. Conversely, a foreign noise invading this ordered and unified set of sounds (such as a baby crying) disrupts this harmonious mental state, and as proposed above, forces the listener to tune out the invader until it becomes impossible to do so.
Of the innumerable biological, physiological, and medical reasons that may account for this phenomenon, there are two concepts that are relevant to my argument. First is the notion of “source and streaming.” In An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing (1989), Brian C. Moore, referring to the work of A. S. Bregman and Steven Pinker (1978), addresses this concept:
A source is some physical entity [that] gives rise to acoustic pressure waves, for example[,] a violin being played. A stream, on the other hand, is the percept of a group of successive and/or simultaneous sound elements as a coherent whole, appearing to emanate from a single source. For example, it is the percept of hearing a violin being played. (Moore 1989, 245)
Thus, when we hear an orchestra of one hundred different instruments playing various pitches, rhythms, and timbres, it is this notion of streaming that explains why and how the brain processes this sound, not as cacophony but as a “coherent whole, appearing to emanate from a single source.”
For the second concept, I turn again to Gestalt theory, specifically the idea of Similarity. Moore (1989, 245) defines Similarity as the “principle . . . that elements will be grouped if they are similar. In hearing, similarity usually implies closeness of timbre, pitch, loudness, or subjective location.” Accordingly, if one accepts this analysis when hearing the orchestra’s over one hundred instruments, the brain interprets their individual sounds to be similar enough to the basic sonic elements grouped together.
However, while Streaming and Similarity justify why the brain chooses not to group the Mozart piano concerto with the crying baby to form a unified whole (clearly, they emanate from different sound sources and are dissimilar in at least timbre and pitch), it doesn’t really explain why the brain fails to understand atonal music. In other words, why doesn’t the brain recognize dissonant notes as being similar and/or emanating from one single source? For this, I believe that we have to reconsider memory.
In their attempt to explain how the brain processes visual information, many theorists have identified differences between perception and recognition.10Such perceptual theories include the top-down processing theory of Ricard Gregory (1970) and the bottom-up processing approach of James Gibson (1966). For more information about their work, see McLeod (2018). Perception can be defined as a conscious sensory experience and occurs when visual stimuli trigger electrical signals in the brain via the ocular nerves. The brain then transforms these signals into the experience of seeing an object. But that is not, as many cognitive theorists argue, where the process stops; in other words, the brain must recognize the object by placing it in a category that gives it meaning. And the key to recognition is the knowledge that in this situation, the perceiver incorporates the memory of similar perceptive experiences (Goldstein 2002, 6–7).
Consider this example: the eye perceives a large rectangular mobile structure made up of metal and glass and suspended on four rubber circular tubes (i.e., this visual stimulus causes electrical signals to be sent along the ocular nerves to the brain). According to the Similarity principle (streaming belonging to the world of audition), the brain may consider these elements similar enough to be grouped into a unified whole. However, it only becomes a “car” if the brain has prior knowledge of what a car is (i.e., it remembers previously perceived cars and compares the current object to those in its memory).
It seems that the auditory perception process should be analogous in that the brain, upon perceiving the sound, recognizes it by bestowing meaning based on the knowledge of sounds it has perceived in the past. Consequently, just as the brain recognizes the rectangular structure suspended on four rubber circles to be a car, so the brain seeks to give meaning to the music it hears based on previously heard music.
Although this is a process by which we can listen to music, it still begs the question as to why atonal music should present a problem in this perception-recognition-knowledge continuum. For that, one should accept the notion that tonal music comprises the bulk of the brain’s past perception of music. I would argue that in Western art music, we are so conditioned by tonal music that when listening to such melodies and harmonies even once, this type of music has passed into our memories, from “Happy Birthday” to the latest pop tunes. In short, it is the knowledge base that provides meaning to the music we experience.
If one accepts the above premise, Streaming and Similarity can only work in the one-hundred member orchestra’s favor, if the musicians are playing tonal music and there are no other sounds that interfere with the brain processing such aural stimuli. Hence, when the dissonant harmonies of an atonal composition are introduced, the brain has a more difficult time recognizing them as belonging to the set that is stored in its memory base of tonal sounds.
One might consider tonal music to be the equivalent of representative or imitative art: just as one can immediately recognize the Mona Lisa as a painting of a woman, a listener can latch onto a lilting melody by Brahms as being comparable to other such melodies ingrained into the brain’s memory. The key difference, however, is that the Mona Lisa and ten other paintings of the female figure can be compared to real women in real time, thereby reinforcing the recognition component, whereas the Brahms piece can only be judged after other music has been heard. Once again, we return to the spatial versus chronological context, and Stravinsky’s statement that listening to music “requires alertness of memory.”
I would like to turn once again to Ingarden’s thoughts in order to consider the psychological and physiological nature of the listening experience, and indeed the relationship between the listener and composer:
It is therefore clear that the musical work is something mental. And it follows that no single musical work is the same for several different mental subjects, or for the same subject listening to a second performance of “the same” work. All we have are conscious experiences: on the one hand, experiences while composing a given work and, on the other, experiences of listeners whose nerve endings are stimulated by sound waves produced by the vibrations of an instrument being played. Whatever the composer experienced is long past, and we can conjecture it only on the basis of our own reactions in the course of listening. (Ingarden 1986, 24–25)
As Stravinsky maintained, visual art is essentially spatial in nature, whereas music is chronological in nature, and as such requires “an alertness of memory.” Reframing this statement, one can say that visual art exists in a spatial context, and music in a chronological one. A spatial context allows the viewer to simultaneously view and compare a work of visual art with visual stimuli, both artistic and nonartistic. A chronological context, conversely, only enables the listener to compare musical pieces (at least to the degree that invites critical analysis) sequentially. Therefore, in order to compare one musical piece with another, the listener must rely on his or her memory of the previous work.
By employing certain principles of Gestalt psychology, as well as the perceptual notions of Source and Streaming, a case can be made to demonstrate that the brain compares new musical stimuli to its memory base of previously heard music. If one accepts the notion that tonal music comprises the bulk of the Western listener’s knowledge base of music, then I propose that atonal music is often perceived as not emanating from a unified and coherent source. Hence, it is frequently perceived as being unpleasant. What prevents visual art from suffering a similar fate is its fundamental status as a spatial art, viewed in a spatial context.
If I may borrow an idea from Stubbs’s Fear of Music (2009, 2), I admit that this article is “as much a matter of questions, suspicions[,] and impressions as answers, historical facts[,] and conclusions.” By this I mean that although I have put forth arguments in support of my topic, the subject itself is of such magnitude that an article of this scope couldn’t possibly purport to pose, much less answer, all the questions involved.
Hopefully, by boiling it down to the essential touchstones of space, time, and memory, I have been successful in articulating the differences in the way the viewing public and the listening audience perceives and appreciates, respectively, modern visual art and contemporary music.
1. My apologies for sprinkling terms such as “untrained listeners” or “nineteenth-century ears” to describe those who are not formally schooled in the musical arts. This is not to condescend or belittle, but merely to differentiate them from listeners who have had more experience with contemporary music.
2. As used in this article, “modern art” is a general reference to post-nineteenth-century art, and not an attempt to denote a specific stylistic genre or period that art historians refer to as “Modern Art.” Essentially, the word “modern” should be used interchangeably with “contemporary.”
3. For example, on 14 May 2008, Triptych, 1976 by British Post-Impressionist painter Francis Bacon sold at Sotheby's contemporary art sale for €55,465 million ($86.28 million), a then record for Bacon and the “highest price paid for a postwar work of art at auction up to 2008.” See Wikipedia 2020.
4. See, for example, “Melting Clocks” (1931) by Salvador Dalí and Woman with a Blue Hat (1938) by Pablo Picasso.
5. I use the word “abstract” in this instance to denote the nonrepresentational nature of a work, as opposed to the musicologist’s or art historian’s definition of a particular style or era.
6. This is a notion first suggested to me by composer Nigel Osborne, my former composition tutor.
7. For this notion and for much of what follows in this article, I draw heavily from the principles of Gestalt psychology, which is credited to the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) and the German psychologists Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) and Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967). The basic principles of Gestalt psychology are: (1) Figure-Ground Articulation, (2) Proximity, (3) Common Fate, (4) Similarity, (5) Continuity, and (6) Closure. See Wertheimer (1945), Kohler ( 1992), and Koffka ( 2001).
8. Simply stated, Figure-Ground Articulation in Gestalt theory refers to the brain’s ability to discern separate visual components by perceiving the difference between a figure against a background. See Pinna et al. (2018).
9. John Cage’s writings on silence make interesting counterpoints to the ideas proposed in this article, but exploring them are not within its scope.
10. Such perceptual theories include the top-down processing theory of Ricard Gregory (1970) and the bottom-up processing approach of James Gibson (1966). For more information about their work, see McLeod (2018).
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