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n a remarkably audacious article1at least for something found in a
buttoned down academic philosophy journalDiana Raffman, a
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, boldly states that
atonal music is and must always remain, not only artistically defective,
but a con game. I claim, she writes, that in virtue of human psychological design, a composer cannot intend to communicate pitch-related
musical meaning by writing twelve-tone music. . . . To that extent,
twelve-tone music is fraudulent, and so not art. 2 Her position may be
familiar to the readers of Perspectives of New Music, since it is largely
based upon certain results of empirical psychology compiled and theorized about by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff 3 that have received
some attention in these pages.4 The main support for Raffmans argument is provided by two empirical premises. They are:

1. Human beings are psychologically (and/or physiologically)

incapable of picking out what she takes to be the only local
structure that can be supplied by twelve-tone rows as they are
generally used in musical compositions written according to the
technique fathered by Arnold Schoenberg and developed by such

Perspectives of New Music

composers as Anton Webern, Roger Sessions, Pierre Boulez,

Milton Babbitt, and Donald Martino; and
2. Many human beings are capable of picking out the local structure
in tonal music.
In this paper I shall assume the truth of these claims.5 That is, I shall
not contest the proposition that no listeneruntrained or expertcan
pick out by ear the local structure of twelve-tone rowsas presented
either horizontally or verticallyin any of their versions (original,
inverted, retrograde, or retrograde inverted). I shall also assume that
many tonal works have local forms or structures that can be recognized
in the approved manner, at least by experienced listeners.
While I will return to these themes as we proceed, my main focus in
this essay will be what, if anything, may be inferred about the artistic
or aesthetic value of a piece of music if those two empirical claims are
supposed to be correct.

As we want to know what connections exist between a certain subspecies of musical form or structure and aesthetic value, it will be
necessary for us to explain our key terms: music, local structure, and
aesthetic value. All three of these are controversial, and numerous
books in aesthetics and music theory have been largely devoted to their
explication. Fortunately, however, it is less important that we get full
agreement on each definition or general explanation here than that we
ensure that we are both clear in what we mean and that we leave
Raffmans main thesis open to discussion. By the latter, I mean that we
must be careful not to assume either what she wants to demonstrate or
its contrary. For example, if we define music in such a way that only
those items that are in the key of G may be correctly called music at
all, then there will be no question of interest regarding what makes
Mozarts Symphony in G more aesthetically valuable than Vermeulens
Symphony No. 4, because based on that definition, the Vermeulen piece
isnt music at all. It may well be that there is some batch of properties
which is such that something is a piece of music if and only if it exemplifies each (or enough) of the properties in the batch, but, if so, that
cluster cannot be used to distinguish some specimens of music from
others as one might use being in the key of G to distinguish the
Mozart from the Vermeulen in ordinary English.6

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value

Moving on to aesthetic value, it is similarly clear that we cannot

fruitfully investigate the relationship of form to value if we begin from
a position according to which it is tautological that only that which has
a structure of a certain kind can be praiseworthy. 7 Our knowledge that
exemplifying this or that sort of form adds value to musical works must
be something that can be learned through the experience of hearing
music, because if it is taken to be a priori, claims like Raffmans (and
any responses to them) are unlikely to merit much interest, resulting as
they do from definitional choices alone. It is thus important to begin
from the standpoint that what is good, great, mediocre, or awful music
must be based to a significant extent upon aesthetic experiences.
Analysts can try to explain these responses, but no theorist ought to
suggest that it has discovered through the investigation of structure
that what seemed a sows ear, is really a silk purse (or vice versa).
We may find, however, that while we do not want to beg any
questions with our understandings of music or aesthetic value, it
may be useful for us to do just that when we come to local structure,
precisely because that recourse may assist us in leaving our main issue
open to discussion. That is, in order not to get lost in the wilderness of
debates regarding the nature of musical form, it seems preferable
simply to find a definition that assumes the truth of the empirical
premises noted above. I believe, at any rate, that such a move facilitates
rather than biases discussion of Raffmans thesis, since, although it
assumes some controversial propositions, it also leaves the empirical
issues of cognitive psychology to be resolved by experimentation within
that field. In addition, it would seem to immunize us from complaints
issuing from the Raffman/Lerdahl axis that it is only our (presumably
faulty) understanding of local structure that is preventing their empirical conclusions from seeming true.
Based on the foregoing considerations, let us agree to define our
terms here in such a way that (i) music is guaranteed to include (at
least) the continuum of works beginning with those Raffman takes to
be towering masterpieces and ending with pieces that she considers
fraudulent trash; and (ii) local structure (which we may assume
includes such features as being a dominant-to-tonic cadence and being a
modulation up a half step) is comprised exclusively of elements that can
be heard (by those with sufficient training) in tonal works only.
It should be clear from the above that we should start with a
definition of music that is as broad as possible, one that has room
for specimens of little or no aesthetic value. The following proposal has
been made by Andrew Kania,8 utilizing an earlier attempt by Jerrold

Perspectives of New Music

Music is (1) any event intentionally produced or organized (2) to

be heard, and (3) either (a) to have some basic musical feature,
such as pitch or rhythm, or (b) to be listened to for such features.10
Kania recognizes that this definition has the apparent defect of
defining music in terms of musical feature and gives his reasons
for doing so, but rather than leave it as is, I think it would be better to
eliminate what is at least an odor of circularity by using sonic in
place of musical and filling out his list of basic features rather than
leaving completion of it to our musical intuitions. To wit:
Music = df. any event intentionally produced or organized to be
listened to that either (a) has one or more of the sonic features of
pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, or counterpoint,11 or (b) is
intended to be listened to for such features.
Whatever else may be said about this definition, it seems broad
enough not to beg any of the key questions that must be answered to
determine if there can be a successful demonstration of the unavoidable
artistic defectiveness and fraudulence of atonal music. In addition, it
provides no basis for the proposition that anything that is music must
be aesthetically valuable. Because it does not require something to be
good to be music, the definition is entirely consistent with the claim
that some field recording of an elevator shaft is both aesthetically
valueless and nevertheless a piece of music.
An additional benefit of the Kania/Levinson proposal seems to me
to be that it requires a particular intention by the creator/presenter for
an item to be considered a piece of music, at least insofar as any such
piece must be an artwork. In an unpublished manuscript on aesthetics
on which value theorist Everett Hall was occupied when he died in
1960, Hall noted that There are aesthetic objects which involve no
work of art: natural objects that are aesthetically appreciated.12 So, for
example, we may appreciate the aesthetic value of the sounds produced
by a field of peepers on a spring morning in New England as a result of
an aesthetic experience markedly similar to that which we might get
from a Penderecki concert, but the din we are admiring is not a piece
of music, or perhaps better, it is not yet music, since if someone records
it with the appropriate intention, it may be thus transformed into at
least the sonic basis of an artwork. That our definition allows for this
distinction between nature and art seems to me an additional merit.
We still have aesthetic value to deal with. Rather than defy both
those who agree with G. E. Moores contentions regarding nonnatural properties (and the fallacy held to result from any attempt to

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value

define them)13 and those who have argued that values arent properties
at all,14 let us abandon any hope of definition entirely here, and settle
for the lesser aim of simply trying to make clear how we shall use the
phrase. In a review of Eddie Prvosts Minute Particulars, I made the
following remarks:
Music (or any art or technology) may be evaluated from a number
of standpoints. Consider a pair of sneakers. . . . We may wonder of
these items: Will they hold up? Are they comfortable? Are they
cheap? Were children exploited in their production? Etc. Each of
these questions may be quite important to us, but each is also
clearly distinguishable from all the others. . . . If, at the end of the
day, Prvost concludes that the determination should be made
that sneakers are good if and only if they get at least a B- on all,
say, fifteen criteria, I will have no quarrel with the basic operative
theory, though I may, of course, disagree with his conclusions.
What must not be forgotten, however, is that we can also focus on
just one of these fifteen criteria (e.g., Are they nice looking?)
and consider it alone, in isolation from all the others. . . . I, with
all my history, linguistic limitations, background, education, conceptual scheme, economic precursors, etc., have a concept of what
I call beauty (which has been molded, of course, by all that history), and I am capable of ascribing it or withholding it to this or
that piece of music (with all its own various and sundry history).15
It doesnt matter either that the sneakers were produced by such
and such culture or that I was. Though both of those claims are
certainly true, neither one prevents me from pondering this aesthetic question in isolation from all the other considerations, and,
what's more, I very often do.16
It is clear that no attempt is there made to define aesthetic value
its my view that the concept cannot be broken down into constituent
parts, so that only the pointless production of near synonyms could be
managed if a definition were attempted. Instead, I took the Moorean
approach that all one needs is a gentle reminder that, whatever aesthetic excellence may be, it is certainly not this and not that.17
Fortunately, as indicated, we have no need either to define
aesthetic excellence or to tackle questions about its objectivity. For
our purposes we need only be comfortable that we have a pretty good
idea of what is meant by the expression. When we consider our preanalytic understanding of the phrase, it becomes clear that, although
we may not know whether its assignment is objective or subjective, we

Perspectives of New Music

do understand that it is something that musical and other objects of art

or nature seem to us to have more or less of. We have come to know,
too, that our evaluations of how much of it is found in various pieces
may differ, not only from those made by others, but even from our
own past assessments. Furthermore, some experts have opined that
aesthetic values correlate directly with various observable and nonobservable properties of the items producing aesthetic experiences:
formal structure, originality, and depth (or multi-facetedness) are
among such properties. This basic grasp of aesthetic value should be
sufficient for Raffmans purposes and our own.
Let us, then, return to local structure to see if we can come up with a
definition for that term. When we do, we will be reminded that the
concept is nearly as puzzling as the others. A compendious literature,
from Fux to contemporary ethnological inquiries, and from Schenkers
spiritual musings to recent studies in cognitive psychology, has been
devoted to the natureor various naturesof musical form(s).18 It is
important to note at the outset that it does not follow from Raffmans
notion of local structure in combination with the empirical premises
that we have agreed to above that atonal musicincluding twelve-tone
varietiescannot have any sort of noticeable, traditional forms at all.
After all, there have clearly been numerous dodecaphonic scherzos,
sonatas, and fugues, including relatively obvious ones.19 Raffman calls
those sorts of features architectural and is happy to concede that
they may be recognized by some auditors even in atonal works. But,
on her view, such recognition can never be an understanding of the
meaning of an atonal work. Indeed, such features of a piece,
recognized or not, cannot be the main basis of aesthetic satisfaction
even in tonal works according to Raffman. She writes,
It seems obvious to me that we do not listen to tonal music
because we are interested in expositions, recapitulations, phrases,
or movements per se. . . . Rather, the focus of our interest . . .
seems to be the local harmonic and melodic events in a piece. Or,
perhaps better, we find the architectural structure of the music
interesting only in the presence of perceptually real local
structure. . . . Local harmonic structure [is] not comparable to
punctuation, [but] rather to story line. The idea that we should
find the architectural structures of a tonal work interesting apart
from its local structure is no more plausible than the idea that we
should find a books organization into sentences, paragraphs,
chapters, and so forth interesting apart from a story line. The
trouble in both cases, I suggest, is that no feelings of the relevant
kind would be engendered.20

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value

Raffman thus takes the architecture of a piece to be importantly

subservient to its local structure, and claims that the meaning of a
work can be derived only from the latter. As she puts it, If twelvetone pitch structure is not perceptually real, if twelve-tone music cannot carry the pitch-related meaning it purports to carry, then it cannot
be a vehicle for the communication of such meaning.21
As I have suggested above, I think it would be quite difficult to try
to define local structure as used by Raffman here in any manner that
is not obviously question-begging with respect to her empirical
premises about what humans can and cannot detect. But, as also indicated, I believe the wisest course in this case to be to simply beg this
question in favor of those premises. By that I mean we should settle on
a definition that not only comports with, but actually implies
Lerdahl/Jackendoff findings about what listeners can and cannot hear.
In particular, we want it to be the case that in twelve-tone music,
empirical psychologists have determined that there simply is no
recognizable local structure.22 Thus, as rondo and march forms can be
noticed in a twelve-tone piece we will just agree that those cannot be
elements of local structure. Where a piece has a cadential resolution
that can be anticipated or a tonic that can be deduced from what has
preceded it, we want our definition to require that it has already been
confirmed by empirical science that the piece cannot be serial. In a word,
local structure will be that which is not recognizable by ear alone in
twelve-tone pieces but is so detectable in tonal works. With those
desiderata in mind, let us define local musical structure as follows:
F is an example of local musical structure = df. (i) F is some
arrangement of melody, harmony, or counterpoint that is possible
for the initiated listener to recognize or understand through (perhaps repeated) listening alone; and (ii) F is not instantiated in the
arrangement of the pitches of any piece of music (or section of it)
in which such elements have been chosen through the use of serial
methods of composition.
Now, obviously, we have defined away the possibility of any
recognition of local structure in the pitches of a work in which pitches
are arranged serially. Those in the Raffman camp need not see that as a
cheat, however. They could respond to criticisms from that direction
by asking, What tone-row-specific forms are there that can be
recognized in dodecaphonic works but are not local? And they will
quickly respond that, since (according to Lerdahl at least) the answer is
none, no harm can have been done to the backers of atonality by

Perspectives of New Music

restricting local structure to passages that have no essential connection

with any presentation of a tone-row. Lerdahl writes,
Competent listeners to Le Marteau, even after many hearings, still
cannot even begin to hear its serial organization. For many passages they cannot even tell if wrong pitches or rhythms have been
played. The piece is hard to learn by ear in a specific sense; its
details have a somewhat statistical quality. Conditioning, in short,
does not suffice. . . . The degree to which Le Marteau is comprehensible, then, depends not on its serial organization but on what
the composer added to that organization. On the other hand, the
serial procedures profoundly influenced the stimulus structure,
leading to a situation in which the listener cannot form a detailed
mental representation of the music.23
Raffman could thus reply to complaints regarding question-begging
by arguing that, since Lerdahl and Jackendoff have demonstrated that
our inability to recognize tone rows in their various forms is nothing
but a function of the physical limits to the human capacity to process
information, there ought to be no objection to defining local structure in a way that reflects that fact. The term will then just be seen as
something that may be handy among psychologists as a name for a
certain subset of features that people will never be able to detect in
musical works that are organized in a particular fashion. We may learn
to notice minuets, scherzos, and virelais in both tonal and atonal works,
but though we can eventually come to tell (even, presumably, with
respect to such envelope-pushers as Max Reger and Ran Blake) what
notes the various cadences within tonal pieces can be expected to land
upon, we cannot and never will learn to discern vertical retrograde
inversions of tone rows through listening alone. And this inability is
what is claimed to prevent us from having cadential expectations that
go either satisfied or unsatisfied in serial pieces. I confess that this claim
seems false to me, but, for the present, we will simply use local
structure to reflect this particular alleged difference between tonal and
atonal works. Again, I will not spend time here contesting claims about
limits to the discernment capabilities of the human brain. What will
chiefly interest me is Lerdahls suggestion that fans of serial music
should be disturbed if we grant these alleged incapacities of competent
listeners to Le Marteau, and, as we have seen, Lerdahl is not alone in
encouraging distress over this matter. Let us consider now whether
such apprehension is justified.

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value

As we have already seen from Raffmans remark about punctuation and
story lines, much of the support for the proposition that where there is
no local structure (as defined above) there can be no aesthetic value
stems from analogies claimed to exist between music and a natural
language like Chinese. Remember Raffmans indictment: If twelve-tone
music cannot carry the pitch-related meaning it purports to carry, then
it cannot be a vehicle for the communication of such meaning. Therefore I claim, in virtue of human psychological design, a composer cannot
intend to communicate pitch-related musical meaning by writing twelvetone music.24 To make sense, Raffmans charge requires the premise
that music, like spoken languages, is capable of semantic content. If so,
and only well-formed musical phrases are semantically competent to
refer, perhaps one need only show that atonal music is not wellformed to conclude that it lacks an ingredient that is necessary for
aesthetic value. Stanley Cavell has made similar claims, although he has
utilized the above-criticized plan of using the term music in such a
way that, if some array of sounds lacks what he takes to be sufficient
meaning, it cant be music at all. He argues that such similarities to a
work of Bach or Berlioz as being played by violinists or requiring
training of a certain kind to perform does not suffice to prevent a
befuddled listener to a Xenakis orchestral work from sensibly asking,
But is it music?25
Alan H. Goldman seems to concur with something like the
meaning attribution and its relation to syntactic structure, at least to
the extent that he takes understanding of the musical form of a work
to be necessary to a certain higher level of enjoyment.26 He grants that
one can get some sort of (I take it quite limited) emotional response
without this understanding, but, on his view, higher aesthetic pleasure can come only where there is a deeper sort of grasp. And, on his
view, inability to understand local musical structure, something which
we have here agreed to assume follows of physical necessity from
atonality, yields the very opposite of pleasure.
When one fails to understand a piece of music, when one is at sea
at a performance of an atonal piece, for instance, it is because one
cannot follow and anticipate its course. One has no sense of being
directed toward musical goals, of synthesizing sections into intelligible sequences in the process of hearing. If lack of understanding
manifests itself in feeling this inability to follow, remember, and
anticipate, then understanding consists in being able to do so. . . .
Aesthetic failure in a piece is failure to engage listeners in the way


Perspectives of New Music

described above. The experience of such a piece is not intense and

rich, but narrow, impoverished, or banal.27
Goldmans position is a bit different from Raffmans though. He
takes musical meanings to be internal or syntactic rather than
utilizing anything like Raffmans apparently referential story talk, so
he is not, strictly, ascribing a semantic function to music. Indeed, his
requirement of internality might cause him to deny that insertion of a
reference to a Bach Chorale into a later work could make it more
aesthetically valuable, while for Raffman, it would seem that such a
feature could change a pieces story line.
In spite of what he takes to be the necessary connection between
comprehensibility and value, Goldman is quick to insist that grasp
will not come easily in the best works. The finest music is, on his view,
difficult enough so that repeated listening by adepts will be rewarded
with deepening understanding. There should thus be lots of connections to be found.
What is completely or only partially internal to a musical work
and the effect of that supposed internality on valueis hardly obvious,
however. There is certainly no uniformity of opinion on such matters,
at any rate. I note that critics regularly point to one or more of the
following pieces of possibly esoteric and in some cases arguably
external information about pieces of musicor performances of
themas evidence of the high value:
It has a form that is precisely traditional.
It subtly alters the traditional form.
It radically alters the traditional form.
It ignores traditional forms.
It is actually performed by one person rather than the apparent
three. (I am thinking here of a performance by Rahsaan Roland
The oboist performing it is actually simultaneously walking a
tightrope (a performance by someone in Cirque du Soleil).
It is all performed with one (circular) breath (a performance by
Evan Parker).

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


It is completely written out.

It is entirely improvised.
It is the result of serial organization.
It is the result of aleatoric techniques.
While some of these tidbits may be gleaned from repeated listening
alone by a trained auditor without the addition of any external information, others may never be discoverable in that fashion. But should the
use of outside assistance here be considered cheating of a kind that is
relevant to aesthetic evaluation? Consider someone who hears a Mozart
sonata at the beginning of a music theory course and again at the end.
Will we insist that the intervention of a new understanding of the
sonata form can prevent this listener from gaining additional appreciation for the piece? While the architecture of this piece was always in
there whether the student realized it or not, that is also true of
whether some Borah Bergman piece was improvised, and of whether a
Prokofiev soloist is playing with one hand only. It may well be that
these facts can be gleaned exclusively from internal data toobut
only by one who knows enough already, and, presumably, the necessary
information to enable the savant to glean this value, will itself be
external to the work.
A wide variety of informationwhether or not available only to the
initiatedmay heighten (or decrease) a listeners aesthetic appreciation. A child with no English may enjoy Hickory Dickory Dock
for its rhythms and assonance, but appreciate it even more once the
meanings of mouse and clock are learned. Goldman may consider
the information here insufficiently esoteric (i.e., too easy to learn) to
be quality-enhancing when it comes to a piece of music. But is that
calculation altered by whether the child lives in an area where only
Swahili is spoken and there is no one around to teach the English
meanings? What if the words in question werent mouse and clock
but mimsy and outgrabe (or, perhaps, Husserlian epoch)? The
point is that Goldmans dichotomies are false. Completely predictable
and therefore uninteresting or loose and seemingly unconnected,
lacking in musical logic28 are points on continua in which the age,
culture, experience, and personal preference of the predictor/connector
are entirely relevant. And, as indicated, just as the range between
esoteric and obvious knowledge is gauzy, so is the distinction between
what is internal and external information. In a word, Goldmans


Perspectives of New Music

discussion of the sorts of things that may be understood about a

piece of music and what effects such information may have on the
value of a work or a listeners experience is unhelpful.29
Lerdahl peppers his writings with terms from linguistics and
philosophy of language, and, in fact, much of his work with Jackendoff
is intended to show that there is a generative grammar that allows us
to comprehend (tonal) music we have not heard before, much as,
according to the transformational theory of Noam Chomsky, innate
grammatical capabilities are required to allow us to understand
sentences (in a language we know) that we have never heard or seen
before. Lerdahl is apparently of two minds (two contradicting minds,
even) about correlations between comprehensibility and aesthetic
value, however. He first avers that There is no obvious relationship
between the comprehensibility of a piece and its value.30 But he
quickly discovers this missing correlation when he asks, If a piece
cannot be understood, how can it be good? That this question is not
merely rhetorical is clear from his answer to it: Most would agree that
comprehensibility is a necessary if not sufficient condition for value.31
Lerdahl does not suggest that he can prove any such Goldmanian
correlations between aesthetic value and ease of comprehension as, for
example, Too Easy: Bad; Too Hard: Also Bad; Moderately Difficult: Just
Right. Instead, he concedes that his aesthetic judgments rely on
unproven and unprovable axioms such as: The best music utilizes the
full potential of our cognitive resources.32 But why should anyone
expect any such axiom to be true? Perhaps only the most advanced
listener can plumb the depths of some complicated and multiply
referential work, just as only a very wise person might be able to find a
way out of some complex moral quandary. But why infer from this that
the complicated piece must therefore be better than all simpler ones?
We would surely not infer that a carefully modulated virtuous action
must be morally superior to simple acts of good will that do not
require the acuity of a Trollope to negotiate. Excellence in both
arenas, while certainly consistent with complexity, does not seem to
require it.
In any case, Id think it should be obvious that claims regarding the
meaning of a musical workwhat is conveyed about its musical form
(which, it should be obvious, is purely syntactical) as well as its power
to produce various emotional responsesdepend on a very weak
analogy. After all, mountain vistas of Vermont lakes also produce emotional responses and perhaps even convey geometric information, but
there is no involvement of semantics. Strictly speaking, while scores
may be said to refer to the sounds intended to be produced by

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


performers of the notations, the produced sounds dont refer at all

although one piece may evoke thoughts of other things: as Reveille
may remind us of the Army or summer camp or a piece by Ives. But
the actual grammar of a piece of music is all syntax, and any allusion to
semantics in this context is little more than a misleading metaphor.
As there may be some who will disagree with my quite categorical
dismissal of any claimed close analogy between linguistic and musical
meanings, I am fortunate that the co-author of the work on which
Lerdahl and Raffman base their claims agrees with me on the matter.
Ray Jackendoff has written that most of what language and music have
in common (such as metrical structure and apparent area of brain
activity) does not indicate a particularly close relation that makes
them distinct from other cognitive domains.33 Here are a few important dissimilarities between music and natural languages according
to Jackendoff:
Musical meaning bears no relation to propositional linguistic
Music is made up of individual tones, formulaic patterns, and
prolongational structure, while linguistic utterances are built up
from words and syntax, which play significantly different roles.
Musical patterns are not associated with concepts, and melodies
are not made up of conventionalized patterns in the way
sentences are made up of words.
Music has no counterpart to the hierarchical structure of
language that includes nodes with syntactic structures such as
noun or adjective phrase.
Musical syntax has no counterparts to such devices as agreement,
case, anaphora, ellipsis, or meaning expression.
Music has no parts of speech. For example, the tonic/dominant
distinction is not analogous to either noun/verb or subject/
In sum, claims of a semantic dimension to music ought not to be taken
terribly seriously.
But isnt it true that in languages like English nonsense can be made
by syntactical means alone? Certainly, but where there is arguably no


Perspectives of New Music

sense to begin with, it is misleading to talk of nonsense. There is

no doubt that if we play an eighteenth-century sonata backwards or
insert random passages into it every six seconds, we may have a sonata
no longer, but there has been no showing that sonatas have any
meaning-derived aesthetic quality not shared by non-sonatas;
indeed, that was part of the point of claiming the analogy to speech in
the first place. We cannot infer that rearrangement of the measures of a
Schubert sonata produces something that makes no sense from the
facts that (i) Wants engine a John fire red is not an English sentence,
and (ii) the rearranged sonata is no longer in any traditional form. To
make such an inference we would first need to establish the premise
that sonatas have meaning in just the way that English sentences do. In
sum, if the analogy between music and English is a weak oneand
according to Jackendoff it issome other basis will have to be found
for the claim that sonatas in G trump non-sonatas in no key whatever
in that only the former can be aesthetically valuable.

Where does this leave Raffmans thesis regarding the defectiveness of
all serial works? If we cannot trust linguistic analogies to help demonstrate defects in atonal music, can we, perhaps, follow Schenker in
looking for a type of musical form having no semantic pretensions to
provide the criteria we can use? Are there more exclusively musical formulae that will provide us with an infallible guide to the level of a
works aesthetic value?
Richard Taruskin, who has long made bales of hay from (at least the
title of) Babbitts Who Cares if You Listen?35 has derided any such
hope as requiring the commission of what he has dubbed the poietic
fallacy. He makes it a quest that is at least as foolish as Rev.
Casaubons absurd hunt for The Key to all Mythologies in Eliots
Middlemarch. Taruskin writes,
The beauty of a twelve-tone row, from the poietic standpoint, was
that by furnishing a sort of quarry from which all the musical
events in a compositionmelodic, harmonic, contrapuntal, texturalwould be hewn, it served as a sort of automatic Grundgestalt,
absolutely ensuring the sort of demonstrable organic unity on
which Goetheanthat is, Schoenbergiannotions of artistic quality depended.36

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


I think Taruskin is completely correct to be suspicious about qualityproviding formulae. But there is nothing new or exclusively dodecaphonic about the hunt for secret algorithms that can engender musical
masterworks. At least since the seventeenth century (and perhaps since
Pythagoras) there have been those who have believed that one can
unfailingly produce aesthetically valuable music by ensuring that it
instantiates a particular structure. H. H. Stuckenschmidt has noted that
The dream that man might be a dispensable factor in the creation
of music is not as new as might be thought. The scholars of the
Baroque era keenly indulged in similar games and speculations.
One of the cleverest of them, the Jesuit and natural philosopher
Athanasius Kircher, gave an outline in his Musurgia Universalis
(1622) of an apparatus called the Arca Musarithmica which could
turn out compositions by a mathematical process.37
Furthermore, as Taruskin himself has pointed out in an illuminating
portrait of John Cage,38 it is not really formality that is the culprit
here, anyhow. Non-formal techniques, even aleatoric ones, have also
been thought to guarantee artistic quality.39
I completely agree that the search for transcendent methods of
construction that will provide aesthetic excellence is fools errand.40 As
indicated above, knowledge of formal structure, method of composition, performance technique, or the geographical or historical location
of a style can do no more than enhance or detract from otherwise
obtained appreciation of a work. Such information cannot provide
quality on its own. And it is clear that musicians on both sides of the
atonality divide have failed to see this. It has not only been such
Taruskin punching bags as Babbitt, Cage, Schoenberg, Sessions, and
Wuorinen who have sometimes revealed their confusion on this matter.
Those who believe that either Schenkerian structural coherence or the
appropriate inspiration in composition or performance is either
necessary to or sufficient for the production of artistic quality commit
the same fallacy.
Indeed, this error has been committed by backers of spontaneous
composition, too. For example, in the book by improvising percussionist Eddie Prvost referred to above, the amount of aesthetic value of a
work is taken to vary directly with the level of communitarianism in
that works creation as well as the ability of a performance of the piece
to foster local collectivism in society at large.41 Another performer/theoretician, David Borgo, has associated musical value with, of all things,
fractals. As I noted about Borgos book on this subject elsewhere:


Perspectives of New Music

How can the fact (if it is one) that an Evan Parker solo more
closely resembles a Cape Cod coastline, a hive of bees, or a Jackson
Pollack painting than does a Bach or Ellington cantata, provide
Parkers music with any additional creds? Maybe the sole of my
shoe is also more similar than the Bach to the coastline or the hive:
what can that possibly prove about the artistic merits of my footwear?42 For Borgo . . . it is simply taken as axiomatic that (i) being
analogous to something like near chaos or swarming behavior;
or (ii) explicitly referring to any such natural processes; or even
(iii) being a reproduction of somesay, a recording of brainwaves, frog chants, or plant behaviorwill necessarily garner for
any musicking the much sought-after property of emergence.43
To repeat, I agree with Taruskin that such theorizing is a symptom
of the poietic fallacy and, thus, largely tosh.44 I insist, however, that
this inability of an inner structure to make a work of music beautiful is
as true of tonal works as it is of alea or dodecaphony. In the end, the
level of a musical works aesthetic value must stand, first and foremost,
on its aural make-up and powers; examinations of form, genesis, or
compatibility with theories of generative grammar will give us little
guidance. Are we then stuck? Are there no tests at all that we can rely
on to determine musical value? Matters are not quite as dire as that in
my opinion.
It is important to remember here that at least some of those who
claim that atonal music is no good have long had what they take to be
a more obvious reason for this accusation than any arguments
regarding either the local-comprehensibility of (for example) twelvetone works or their paucity of any other type of magical structure or
compositional technique. Moreover, this reason doesnt depend on any
analogies between musical and semantical properties. It is simply that
audiences dont like twelve-tone music.
I take this accusation very seriously and agree with Taruskin that it
would be a mistake to dismiss it based on some allegedly overweening
structural arrangement or alchemical genesis of a piece. In my view, all
those who agree that it is the reaction to the sounds that matters most
should concede that at least some support may be derived for any claim
that serial construction results in bad music from solid evidence that
nobody likes dodecaphonic pieces. I do not mean to suggest that any
such evidence would be dispositive. Tastes change, and, assuming for
the moment that aesthetic values are not entirely a matter of culture,
even large majorities can be wrong. Nevertheless, I take the claim that
extremely few of those who have heard atonal music have liked it to

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


have at least some probative valueif it is true. Individual experiences

of approbation and disapprobation must be given some level of prima
facie weight by anyone who takes judgements of value to be meaningful.
If any such judgement can be reasonably asserted to be correct, there
must be an evidential component to feelings of approval and disgust.
In the case of atonal music, supporters may want to take the responses
of the initiated more seriously than those of the unwashed, but
according to some anti-serialists, not even graduate students at
Juilliard or their teachers really enjoy Webern, Babbitt, or Martino;
they only pretend to.
Raffman provides a good example of someone who holds this
extreme view. She confidently asserts that serialism has never really
found an audience, and even trained listeners today are largely uninterested in it except as an object of theoretical or historical
scholarship. And she adds that dodecaphonic pieces fail to engender
musical feeling experiences, insisting that if they were enjoyable we
would seek them out . . . but as a matter of fact we dont.45 Again,
such claims seem to me important if true, and I think the defenders of
atonality would have a responsibility to reply to them. But . . . are they
true? We certainly cannot tell from Raffmans paper, for she has provided no shred of evidence for these charges there.
Many of us have heard anecdotes of riots said to be caused by atonal
musicand we may have seen people quietly drift out of concert halls
before or during a Carter quartet (as I sometimes feel the need to leave

during Dvork),
but, of course, Slonimskys Lexicon46 makes clear that
whatever is new has been derided as noise/garbage at least since
Beethovens time. I have sought to find quantity-of-performance data
on the web and did discover one site47 according to which Schoenberg
ranked 64th among classical composers in 2013 performances. (Britten
who wrote at least one twelve-tone piece himselfplaced fourth in
the world and first in the U.K., presumably because of his centenary.)
But as there was no information regarding which countries or concert
halls were surveyed, how many people attended, etc., this information
barely seems worth repeating out loud. Several things do seem clear,
however. While it is doubtful that many works of strict serialism are
being created anymore, due presumably as much to the difficulty in
writing such pieces as to any claimed aesthetic defects, non-dodecaphonic, completely atonal music can now be heard nearly everywhere.
At least since Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced Ligeti to
the movie-going public way back in 1968, both film and television
soundtracks have been rife with both noise and atonal classical
segments.48 If these soundtracks have been considered unpleasant or


Perspectives of New Music

without aesthetic merit by audiences, I would think that producers

would get away from that practice.49 In addition, the huge proliferation of recordings during the last decade of non-tonal and often
cadence-free pieces by Morton Feldman as well as of non-tonal,
improvised electronic soundscapes by Keith Rowe, with and without
others, is absolutely astounding. In fact, electro-acoustic improvisatory
festivals (like Amplify) and labels (like Erstwhile) are multiplying all
over the globe, in an era when people generally dont go to concerts of
non-popular music anymoreeven of Tchaikovsky. Maybe its true that
only a small portion of regular symphony orchestra concert-goers want
to hear Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Babbitt, Martino, or Wuorinen
(and maybe its not true: both the Berg Violin Concerto and the
Schoenberg Piano Concerto seem to me to have become veritable
concert hall staples over the last couple of decades), but what could we
infer from that, anyhow? What portion of music listening is a matter of
going to symphony orchestra or chamber music concerts at all?
Raffman makes a quick allusion to the popularity of rap music,
which she takes to have no local structure of the kind she admires,50
but suggests that what she believes to be the genres complete elimination of pitch makes it presupposition eliminating: it doesnt
pretend to care about local structure the way twelve-tone music does,
so it is not similarly defective and fraudulent. The problems with that
move are not only that rap encompasses a huge variety of music,
some pitch-involving, some not, some tonal, some not. It is also the
case that there are other popular genres that clearly do involve pitchutilizing material that often embrace atonality as well as wildly
unpredictable rhythms. Think of the death metal of such groups as
Meshuggah, Ulcerate, and Gorguts, for example.51 Furthermore, any
claim that some works that fit our definition of music may actually
have aesthetic value in spite of failing to have local structure is
obviously an ad hoc adjustment to the original anti-atonality argument.
That an epicycle has here been manufactured by Raffman to deal with
the rap counter-example is clear from the fact that one could make a
twelve-tone rap tune by speeding/compressing performance of the
rows or changing their registers (neither would violate any serial rules)
to such an extent that they would merely present percussive content to
human ears. Would this work now be necessarily artistically defective
qua a piece of dodecaphony, or is it possibly excellent qua rap, or
both? (Is it perhaps only qua tonal concert music that twelve-tone
pieces are always no good?)
To return to the type of music Raffman is apparently more familiar
with, it is interesting to note that Taruskin himself has written that he

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


admires not only Pierrot Lunaire, but several of Schoenbergs early

dodecaphonic pieces, and Lerdahl, as noted above, has said both that
difficulty is no bar to masterfulness and that most tonal music is like
most atonal music in being bad.52 Thus, Raffmans empirical claim to
the effect that nobody likes atonal music is wrong even if we restrict
the universe of listeners to two of the three allies she relies most
heavily upon in her paper.53

To be fair, as noted above, Taruskin does not endorse Raffmans claim
that no twelve-tone works are any good. He takes the more moderate
position that, if any of them are aesthetically pleasing, this is in spite of,
rather than because of, their serialism. He writes,
Both Schoenberg and Webern, in their different ways, compensated for the nonhierarchical organization of pitch relations by
building ad hoc hierarchies into their products in the form of significantly recurring chords, rhythmic patterns, or melodic shapes,
or by emphasizing symmetries whether melodic (in the form of
pitch palindromes, especially in Webern) or harmonic (chords that
have the same intervallic structure when inverted). But why
should one have to compensate in this way? If Schoenberg and
Webern achieved beauty and communicativeness in spite of their
methods rather than because of them, the methods might possibly
be worth a critical look.54
Furthermore, Taruskin takes Schoenbergs doctrine of the emancipation of dissonance to be entirely inconsistent with his use of
traditional forms. For example, the elaborate fugue-making in Pierrots
Der Mondfleck, is foolish on his view, since the whole essence of
counterpoint has always been dissonance treatment.55 If dissonance
is emancipated, one superposition of several lines would seem to be as
good as any other, so the whole process must be self-destructive.
What Taruskin seems to miss here is that any complaint of this type,
whether it concerns fugue-construction, twelve-tone technique,
aleatoric artifice, or improvisational caprice, is nothing but the
commission of another version of the very poietic fallacy that he has
derided. We must judge music on its effects on listeners first and
foremost. The recognition that it contains a fugue or was derived from
a star chart may enhanceor, I suppose, detract fromour enjoyment,
but any direct focus on construction method as the fons et origo of


Perspectives of New Music

some level of aesthetic value in music must always be mistaken. Thus,

it is as confused to claim a piece to be beautiful in spite of its manner of
construction as it is to demand the works praise because of it. It may
be objected to this, as Raffman has, that there is an exclusive appeal of
local structures that demonstrates an antipathyor at least an indifferenceto the serial form of any work. But, again, that seems simply
false. Stuckenschmidt has pointed out,
[In Bergs Lulu] three different series are used as Leitthemen, as it
were, each being allocated to a particular character in the opera.
Berg also derives four three-part chords from the original series
and assigns them as a motif to the central character of Lulu. By
using other techniques of his own invention he obtains the
remaining motivic and chordal material from the original series.
The result is a highly strict piece of musical organization. Admittedly, the listener cannot recognize it as such on first hearing. He
can understand the music only by examining the score and closely
studying its structure. But that in no way vitiates the works artistic quality. The same applies to all complicated forms of
polyphony, notably Netherlands Renaissance polyphony, which
likewise cannot immediately be understood unless the listener is
thoroughly acquainted with the formal techniques involved.56
If different chords have different feels to them, then a different serial
construction would have provided the characters in Lulu with different
vibes and the whole opera with markedly different affective powers.
That is, even requiring, as our definitions do, that twelve-tone composition cannot result in recognizable local forms, we cannot validly infer
that serial methods have no effects on the audible characteristics of a
piece. After all, if that were true, it would be hard to see why Raffman
or anyone else might dislike the sound of just those works that are
atonal. And if what is actually heard may be affected by, for example,
the choice of the tone rows, it cannot be the case that the resulting
aesthetic quality of the work can only be in spite of its dodecaphonic
method of construction.57 The actual (rather than intended) effect of
the compositional method on the aesthetic result is strictly causal: all
that may correctly be said to be irrelevant are the intentions or theory
connected with the use of that method. It is in spite of those only that
the work may be good or bad. The irrelevance of compositional
intentions cannot remove the pertinence of the method itself to the
result. Indeed, to suggest that it does so is to confuse reasons with
causes, something which is itself the commission of an informal logical
error (the so-called genetic fallacy).

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


If all this is so, why has there been so much concern about any
compositional method that seems somehow artificial? Why does
there seem to be something suspicious about Schoenbergs prescriptions, the use of computers, the hunt for fractals, and the tossing of
sticks? It is my view that this attitude comes from the fear of being
defrauded. Raffman warns us that with atonal music the performers
may well be engaged in empty musical mugging 58 when they seem
to be expressing themselves or the music. We can almost hear her
whisper, Dont be taken in! Cavell notes that this fear is far from
new. He tells us that Tolstoy, a man who hunted deeply and
persistently for marks of sincerity, concluded that all of the following
gentlemen were heavily involved in the big con: Beethoven, Brahms,
Wagner, Michelangelo, Renoir; the Greek dramatists, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and Ibsen.59 No doubt there are perils on
either side of But the emperor is naked! debate.60 But Cavell
maintains that we must ignore the dangers and take a stand on one
side or the other. If we know that even a child might have made
some celebrated drip painting, field recording, or drone piece; if a
computer could make a twelve-tone work within minutes with the help
of random number generation, Cavell tells us that we must ask How
is this to be seen? What is the [artist] doing? The problem, in
Cavells words, is not one of escaping inspiration, but of determining
how a man could be inspired to do this, why he feels this necessary or
satisfactory, how he can mean this.61 For Cavell, it is only by
answering such questions that we can determine whether something
deserves the name of art.
But isnt all of this worry about being deceived by tricksters just
another artifact of the poietic fallacy? Instead of asking questions about
how something was built, whether it fosters communitarianism, or
what was intended to be conveyed by its creator, couldnt we learn to
trust our own aesthetic responses instead and consider all that other
stuffhowever interestingjust (tasty, tasteless, or over-salted) gravy?
Why must those at the premiere of Rite of Spring who were moved to
rock out compulsively be embarrassed if it later turns out that the piece
was made by a computer or a seven-year old child? And why should
anyone believe that they have discovered that the piece was better than
previously thought if it turns out that theres a perfect double fugue in
there somewhere (and swell with pride if they noticed this feature all
by themselves)? Again, I dont suggest that all of these other matters
are or should be entirely extraneous to our appreciation, that
consideration of them cannot enhance or detract from our aesthetic
experiences. I simply insist that they must be seen as secondary: they


Perspectives of New Music

cant make a bad piece good, or a good piece bad. Whether or not
particular facts about the origin of a work obtain and have had their
effects on the resultant music, the aesthetic value of an artwork is not,
strictly, a function of the intention to utilize or abstain from a particular compositional technique. The goodness or badness of a piece is
neither because of nor in spite of such intensions, except, of course, to
the extent that their implementation (whether correct or incorrect)
happens to make the music-as-heard better or worse.
Cavell tells us that Tolstoy and Nietzsche agreed on many of the
signs of fraudulence: a debased Naturalisms heaping up of random
realistic detail, and a debased Romanticisms substitution of the
stimulation and exacerbation of feeling in place of its artistic control
and release; and in both, the constant search for effects. Wariness of
such elements has continued.62 The use of birdsong, from Beethoven
to Delius and from Messiaen to the maker of a field recording, seems
to be a case of ever-increasing realistic detail. But any decrease in
what might be called symbolic distance in recent music is not found
only in the portrayal of natures apparent indifference to human
artifice. Where once a viol and shawm were used to depict the pain of a
mourning parent, now a recording of an intensely keening mother may
be heard floating above a string quartet in an attempt to intensify our
empathy with human sufferers. Whether or not the birds were easy to
tape or the recording of the mother constitutes her exploitation, must
either represent a debasement of the music itself? If so, it must also
have been debasement when Ives depicted the sound of separate
marching bands crossing paths on a road, not by allusion, but by
simply having two pieces in different keys and time signatures played
simultaneously, or when Biber required the insertion of paper into
violin strings to imitate drumming. If sights or sounds of nature are
among the most beautiful, inspiring, or saddest things we encounter in
our lives, why would we expect composers not to continue to mimic
them in ever-new ways? And if the results continue to bring something
of the non-composedindeed entirely non-artificialworld back to us
as we listen, well . . . thats a good thing, right? Surely we ought not to
ignore our feelings of appreciation for what Hall identified as
(approximately) the appropriateness of the aesthetic surface to the capture
of our object emotions because we disapprove of the composers means
or theories. Indeed, wont increasing our focus upon the difficulty or
ease of creation or other compositional matters end up by making our
emotional responses largely irrelevant? In fact, if difficulty of construction or intent to defraud are crucial to the determination of artistic
value, it seems we should be hiring investigators, taking depositions, or

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


reading interrogatories instead of going to concerts, buying recordings,

and reading reviews. For, surely, listening to music is a very imperfect
way of determining compositional intent or method. I note, however,
that such an inquisitorial approach would mean that any composers
saying they dont care whether we listen would be absolutely right,
because it suggests that correct appraisal of aesthetic merit should no
longer be based upon what music sounds like at all.

Let us consider where we have arrived. We started with an argument as
to the necessary worthlessness and trickery of twelve-tone music
(which were claimed to likely apply to other atonal music as well).
Ignoring some of the niceties included above, this argument can be
briefly put as follows:
1. Tone rows in serial music cannot be recognized when heard even
by trained listeners.
2. Only such music as contains forms that can be recognized when
heard by trained listeners has aesthetic value.
3. Therefore, serial music has no aesthetic value.
We have agreed to assume the truth of (1). There is no reason whatever to believe (2), however, which seems to require either commission
of the poietic fallacy or an apparently false empirical claim about what
no listeners enjoy (or both). Turning to (3), it would not follow from
(1) and (2) even if both were true, because pieces that are serial in
their construction might contain recognizable features other than tone
rows that are nevertheless a function of the choice of those rows and
their manner of presentation. We have seen that proponents of the
argument might respond that the dodecaphonic structure itself adds
no value to pieces containing it, based on the theory that what itself
cannot be recognized can only accidentally contribute to anything that
can be recognized. We can try to help such proponents with their
attempt to rehabilitate the above syllogism by altering (3) as follows:
3*. Therefore, the serial construction of a piece adds nothing to the
aesthetic value of that pieceexcept by accident.


Perspectives of New Music

But (3*) is also false: it is wildly implausible that in even so

cerebral a work as Le Marteau, the choice of rows and their presentation were not considered at all, and in, for example, the (audibly
recognizable) mirror imaging that occurs between various voices, that
all the effects of those choices were produced entirely by chance. 63 It is
important to note here that effects of unheard (even unhearable) local
forms of strictly tonal works may also have intended effects. For
example, trained listeners without perfect pitch generally cannot pick
out the particular key a tonal piece is in, though they can usually tell if
it is in a major or minor version of that key. Yet base key choice clearly
does influence the aesthetic result, not only because of any alleged
alteration in the particular mood associated with each tone, but for
such mundane reasons as its effect on orchestration possibilities due to
constraints imposed by instrumental ranges. Furthermore, chosen
items can cause effects even in cases where those choices were not
intended to affect the character of the creation in the manner that they
did. The intentions or applicable theory behind them are neither
identical nor essential to the choices resulting from those intentions or
theories. Causes must not be confused with reasons. We may conclude,
therefore, that Raffmans syllogism is not salvageable: it contains at
least one false premise, and is invalid to boot.
But does this mean that one cannot revel in the mastery exemplified
by, say, Art of the Fugue? Not at all; we must just remember that such
formal brilliance considered on its own is much like that of an elegant
computer program, another creation that might command our
admiration. It could be objected that while one can hear the form of
the musical work when it is played, there is no closely analogous way
to notice the perfection of the computer code in its implementation. I
dont know if that is the case, myself. But, supposing it is true, nothing
of importance seems to me to follow from it. It would allow us to note
only that music sometimes has the potential to show its compositional
form in implementation in a manner that computer programs do not.
It may well be that to the extent that computer programs have
aesthetic value, such quality can derive only from recognition of the
formal structure of the codes by means other than witnessing the
implementation of those programs. If so, computing differs from music
in that respect. Whether or not that is the case, there would seem to be
no more help for Raffmans thesis to be found in differences between
music composition and computer programming than there was to be
gleaned from alleged similarities between music and spoken language.
As many readers will at this point be at the end of their theoreticophilosophical tethers, let me quickly point out that I absolutely agree

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


with them. In fact, that very frustration was the main impetus for this
paper. How much does it matter if a canon in Roussels Third or
Shostakovichs Fourth is constructed as Fux or Schenker would have
liked or if these later composers actually cheated a bit here and there?
Are musical creations necessarily better if they dont stray from
accepted forms at any point? Or, restricting ourselves to Raffmans
local structures, why should it be thought that the absence of a home
key must still produce endless discomfort in every listener in the 21st
Century? Even if we concede that a V-I cadence is naturally tension
reducing, cant people have later come (perhaps through weariness of
hundreds of years use of this natural phenomenon) to instead find
themselves calmed first by Ivess Unanswered Question, a written out
Tournemire organ improvisation, or Weberns pointillism (and still
later find comfort in the icy sonorities of Ligetis Lontano, the
ferocious, atonal hammering of Cecil Taylors solo performances, or a
faint, undecipherable background radio broadcast in a performance by
AMM?64 Neither being natural nor being correct provides an
unerring path to musical serenity, let alone aesthetic merit. A Picardy
third, beloved by someone when she is twenty, may have become to
her the equivalent of a (naturally irritating?) fingernail squeak on a
blackboard by the time she has turned forty.
Clearly, Diana Raffman does not enjoy atonal music (or at least did
not in the early 2000s). That is (or was) her privilege. She has not,
however, either discovered a necessary defect or uncovered a pervasive
fraud in this despised subgenre. She has merely attempted to justify her
distaste by suggesting that it is founded on both science and reason.
But the science is junk and the reasoning is bad. Let me not be overly
harsh here, however. Raffman may console herself in the fact that in
this sphere there will never be any science or reasoning that is
competent to the task she has in mind. Values, both moral and
aesthetic, are nearly identifiable by their resistance both to scientific
investigation and philosophical proofs. At any rate, for my own part,
Ich habe genug! Let there be an end to all this absurd and largely
fallacious theorizing! Let us just listen!


Perspectives of New Music

1. Diana Raffman, Is Twelve-Tone Music Artistically Defective?
Midwest Studies in Philosophy 27/1 (2003): 6987.
2. Ibid., 86. As suggested by this charge, most of the focus of
Raffmans article is on twelve-tone composition, but she indicates
that she takes her claims to extend to atonal music generally, since,
on her view, serial technique is just an especially strict form of
atonal composition (69).
3. Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal
Music (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).
4. See in particular James Boros, A New Totality? Perspectives of
New Music 33/12 (1995): 538553; Fred Lerdahl, Tonality and
Paranoia: A Reply to Boros, Perspectives of New Music 34/1
(1996): 242251; and James Boros, A Response to Lerdahl,
Perspectives of New Music 34/1 (1996): 252258.
5. Not everyone has done so. In the papers cited above, James Boros
questions a number of the conclusions that Lerdahl draws from
various results in empirical cognitive psychology. Furthermore, I
believe it is instructive that significant portions of classic instruction
manuals in dodecaphony are devoted to techniques that can be
used to keep traditional tonal structures from polluting twelvetone music. See, for example, Ernst Krenek, Studies in Counterpoint Based on the Twelve-Tone Technique (New York: Schirmer,
1940). If local structures of serial pieces can closely resemble those
of tonal works, and the latter forms are recognizable in the manner
approved by Raffman, it could be argued that the former must be
so as well. I will discuss this issue in more detail below. Finally, the
view that twelve-tone music is not a species of tonality is subjected
to a lengthy critique in Richard Norton, Tonality in Western
Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,
1984). Norton says, for example, If twelve-tone music canand
does at timescompletely efface key-centered music (and all
characteristic loyalties) how does it remain tonal? The answer is a
simple one: by the continuing operation of the cognitive ratio as
composer upon the inherited reservoir of pitch data, that is, twelve
pitches within the chromatic scale. Taking the half-step as the
smallest melodic and harmonic point of reference, twelve-tone
composers both speculated upon and composed a music in which

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


loyalties were ignored in favor of other forms of tonal coherence

(269). However, as Nortons uses of tonal and tonality are
somewhat heterodoxical, I will ignore any criticisms of Raffmans
thesis that might originate from that direction.
6. In his The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999) seems to utilize a definition that would disqualify a lengthy, unchanging drone from being a piece of music.
He remarks, What I hear in . . . sound, when I hear it as music . . .
is the intentional object of musical perception and is characterized
through variables (pitch, rhythm, melody, and harmony), which
organize the tonal surface, and outline an acousmatic space (79).
While his use of hear in apparently moves what is essential to
music from the piece itself to an auditor of ita move which would
seem to make various sounds music for some listeners (perhaps
only occasionally) and not music for otherswe may assume that
the variables Scruton specifies as requirements for anything to
count as music are thought by him to be internal to the work itself.
That is, if a listener were to imaginatively imbue the painting of a
dog with harmony, melody and the others, that listener would not
have succeeded in making either Fido or the portrait of him into a
musical work. On Scrutons view, such characteristics must in some
sense be discovered in the work, not inserted there by listeners. This
is also suggested by his remark that A composer who offers
nothing but figures, as in the endless daisy chains of Philip Glass,
invites us to hear only background: in such cases the music slips
away from us, and becomes a haze on the heard horizon (63).
7. Heinrich Schenker, in his somewhat mystical Free Composition,
(New York: Longman, 1979, xxii) takes such a question-begging
approach to aesthetic value, allowing only pieces infused with
coherence of a type the author deems desirable to have any
artistic merit whatever.
8. Andrew Kania, Definition, in The Routledge Companion to
Philosophy and Music, ed. Theodore Gracyk and Kania (London:
Routledge, 2011) 313.
9. Jerrold Levinson, The Concept of Music, in Music, Art and
Metaphysics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1990), 267278.
10. Kania notes that he has replaced sound in Levinsons definition
with anything intended to be heard so as not to rule out works
or (sections of them) involving extended silences. Ibid., 1011.


Perspectives of New Music

11. I have added counterpoint to the more traditional triad of melody,

harmony and rhythm, to ensure that no examples of musique
concrte that consist largely of overdubbed speech would be
excluded. I owe to Larry Tapper the observation that, based on
the final pages of his Harmonielehre, Schoenberg would likely have
included timbre or texture (or both) to this list. And the Ruth
Crawford Seeger and Elliott Carter wind quintets both make early
compelling cases for such inclusion. I leave further tweaking here
to the reader.
12. Everett W. Hall Papers, Special Collections Research Center,
Southern Illinois University Carbondale. See also Thomas Thompson, Halls Analysis of Aesthetic Value, The Southern Journal of
Philosophy 4/3 (1966): 177191.
13. See, for example, George Edward Moore, Principia Ethica
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903).
14. The emotivistic theories of A. J. Ayer and Charles Stevenson, and
the prescriptivism of R. M. Hare are well-known examples.
15. Walter Horn, Book Review: Edwin Prvost, Minute Particulars
(Matchless), One Final Note: Jazz & Improvised Music Webzine,
(2004), http://www.onefinalnote.com/features/2004/prevost/.
16. Ibid. (Note that these final two sentences actually appear in the
middle of the previous portion of the block quote.) I note that
there is a problem with my remarks in that they conflate aesthetic
excellence with beauty. Hall (Papers) pointed out that while
beautiful is often associated with pretty, there may be
aesthetic excellence in the downright ugly, and added that the
deformed, shocking, etc., are not excluded from occurrence in
aesthetic objects, sometimes of the highest excellence. And for his
part, even Scruton (Aesthetics of Music, 305) concedes that
atonal idioms can be used to invest the most repulsive and trivial
situations with an aura of universal significance. We may suppose
that some art works provide us with a sort of emotional distance
from the ugliness or deformity either of some depicted item
or some sensory surface or both. Hall (Papers) made aesthetic
experience a feeling for the appropriateness of the means used to
create distance between a heard (or seen) work and what he called
the object emotion (e.g., someones response to seeing a
deformed sufferer, religious icon, or dangerous snake in a nonaesthetic context). That is not a definition, of course, and if it

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


were, it would merely produce equally difficult issues involving the

determination of greater or lesser appropriateness.
17. Again, many have denied the existence of any such thing as
aesthetic value, and many who do countenance it take it to be
entirely a function of either personal or cultural preference (or
perhaps evolutionary usefulness or some other natural property or
properties). These are ancient disputes, and I will discuss them
here only to the quite limited extent required to make sense of the
alleged correlation between atonality and aesthetic worthlessness.
18. Readers interested in these issues may enjoy the writings of James
Tenney and Harold Fiske on the subject, as well as those of
Scruton. Many of these discussions are careful, acute, and
illuminating, if, perhaps, not terribly lively.
19. Consider, for example, the Minuet in Schoenbergs String Quartet
No. 4. See also Tse-Ying Koh, The Twelve-Tone Method and the
Classical Tradition in Roger Sessionss Symphony No. 3 (Masters
Thesis, Rice University, 1995) and Krenek, op. Studies in Counterpoint crab canons. It is worth remembering that Schoenberg
considered himself a disciple of Mozart when it came to string
quartet writing.
20. Raffman, 83. Raffmans claim that recapitulation (i.e., repetitions)
can be interesting only in the context of tonal structures is not
obvious to me. Consider, for example, Steve Reichs Come Out or
countless other tape-loop pieces not involving tonal elements.
Presumably, Raffman would handle this objection the same way
she deals with the issues involving rap music discussed below.
21. Ibid., 86. Note the purports here. Obviously such a term might
be useful to one who plans to bring a suit involving alleged
22. I leave for later the point that if this supposition were actually the
case, it would be quite strange for so many composers to have
taken such care in picking one row over another and for instructors
of serial technique, from Schoenberg to Cope, to have wasted so
much space on these matters. The importance of the choice of
particular rows, particularly in Berg, will be considered below.
23. Fred Lerdahl, Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,
Contemporary Music Review 6/2 (1992): 98. I will discuss the
implied extent to which twelve-tone composers can only add to
or subvert serialism by non-serialistic means in later sections.


Perspectives of New Music

24. Raffman, 86. Obviously, Raffmans claim would not be quite right
even if her contentions about linguistic similarities were correct,
because, surely, one can try to express something but (unintentionally) use inappropriate means for the task. That is,
fraudulence would seem to require an intent to deceive, and ought
not to be alleged merely on the basis that one has used ineffective
media for the production of some effect.
25. Stanley Cavell, Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy, in
Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1976), 84. Cavell seems to conclude that, where there are
no touchstones of tonality present, the answer to the But is it
music? question is largely a function of whether the piece is
intentionally fraudulent. I shall discuss the accusation of fraud
perpetration in Section IV.
26. Alan H. Goldman, Value, in The Routledge Companion to
Philosophy and Music, ed. Kania and Gracyk (London: Routledge
2011), 155164.
27. Ibid., 161.
28. Ibid.
29. There is a current top-ten radio hit (All of Me by John Legend
and Toby Gad) whose lyrics contain the following consecutive
lines: Whats going on in that beautiful mind? I'm on your
magical mystery ride. These lines make two extremely trite pop
culture references, but my fourteen-year-old daughter was not
familiar with either the Beatles album and song or the book and
movie about John Nash until I mentioned these facts to her. Her
appreciation of the song was increased as a result of this
esoterica. We could refuse to call such appreciation aesthetic,
but I believe it would be quite difficult to make any sensible
distinction about what counts as aesthetic pleasure that excludes
recognition of extra-musical quotations but includes recognition
of, for example, an insertion of a melodic passage from Bach or
Cole Porter. Such exclusion would likely make the appropriateness
of a setting of a poem or libretto aesthetically irrelevant.
30. Lerdahl, Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,
31. Ibid.

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


32. Ibid., 118120. Although Lerdahl is not clear about this, I take it
that the potential of some piece to tax our grammatical capabilities to the limit is again considered only a necessary, and not a
sufficient, condition for that work to be of high aesthetic merit.
33. Ray Jackendoff, Music and Language, in Gracyk and Kania, The
Routledge Companion, 111.
34. Ibid., 111112.
35. Milton Babbitt, Who Cares if You Listen? High Fidelity (Feb.
36. Richard Taruskin, The Poietic Fallacy, in The Danger of Music
and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2009) 319320.
37. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Twentieth Century Music, World
University Library (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 203.
38. Taruskin, No Ear for Music: The Scary Purity of John Cage, in
The Danger of Music, 261279.
39. Taruskin finds a similarity between the sound of Boulezs Structures
for Two Pianos and Cages Music of Changes and believes he has
uncovered the reason for it: What both composers accomplished
with these works was the replacement of spontaneous compositional choiceschoices that, in Cages oft-incanted phrase,
represented memory, tastes, likes and dislikeswith transcendent
and impersonal procedures. . . . The difference between Boulez and
Cage was only superficially a conflict between order and anarchy.
It was, rather, a conflict between disciplines, both eminently
authoritarian, both bent on stamping out the artists puny person
so that something realer, less vulnerable, might emerge. Cages
chance operations, very rigorous and very tedious, were just as
effective a path to transcendence as Boulezs or Babbitts
mathematical algorithms Ibid., (264).
40. I find it amusing that while Goldman finds ultimate support for his
defense of (apparently algorithm eschewing) tonality in Hegel:
Music . . . represents the purest kind of Hegelian overcoming of
matter by mind, the purest expression of the creative human
spirit(Value., 164), Taruskin lays most of the blame for what he
considers Schoenbergian and Cagean confusions right at Hegels
feet. These errors are claimed by Taruskin to be a direct result of
the Hegelianization of music history (Taruskin, The Danger of
Music), 301329.


Perspectives of New Music

41. Eddie Prevost, Minute Particulars: Meanings in Music-Making in

the Wake of Hierarchical Realignments and Other Essays (Matching
Tye: Copula, 2004).
42. Im guessing that I find my recurring references to shoes as
mysterious as the reader does.
43. Walter Horn, Review of David Borgo, Sync or Swarm:
Improvising Music in a Complex Age (Continuum), Signal-toNoise: The Journal of Improvised & Experimental Music 41 (2006).
44. It seems that Babbitt and Boulez have also agreed with this, at
least on occasion. In his A New Totatlity?, James Boros relates
a conversation between Boulez and Robert Moevs in which Boulez
indicates he once told a student that it would be missing the
point to try to find tone rows in his work. Boros also quotes
Babbitts remark, in Words about Music, that analyzing a twelvetone piece is not a matter of finding the lost set. This is not a
matter of cryptanalysis (wheres the hidden set?). What I'm
interested in is the effect it might have, the way it might assert
itself not necessarily explicitly (552). Boross mocking remark
regarding Lerdahls views regarding the importance to listening of
the inference of structure is wonderfully apt: I really like
Coltranes Meditations because you can infer a lot of structure
from it. Oh, and it also makes me cry, but thats beside the point
(545). It seems, then, that on the existence of the poietic fallacy,
Boros agrees with Taruskin and me.
45. Raffman, 84.
46. Nicolas Slonimsky, A Lexicon of Musical Invective (New York:
Coleman-Ross, 1953).
47. http://bachtrack.com/2013-stats.
48. Indeed the list of composers contributing to Scorseses Shutter
Island reads like the names of individuals who have received performances by the Ensemble Intercontemporain since that groups
49. It could be argued that those segments are mere sound-effects,
that if they add something to the video, its not aesthetic value but
some other sort of more pragmatic virtue. But I note that not only
critics and award bestowers but regular people apparently enjoy
numerous atonal contributions to movies and televisionwhether
by Goldsmith or Penderecki or the multiple soundscape designers

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


of Breaking Bad or Hannibalenough to buy or download these

tracks for the purpose of listening to them in the absence of any
video accompaniments. I wonder whether, when people buy a
Mozart or Rachmaninov (rather than a Takemitsu or Ligeti) piece
after first hearing it while watching a movie, it is widely suggested
that such purchasers are not buying this music for its own musical
merit but for some other reason that is unrelated to appreciation of
its aesthetic qualities. Were all those who bought a recording of a
Mozart piano concerto after first hearing the piece during Elvira
Madigan or Amadeus also either trying to recall scenes from these
films or looking for ways to impress artsy poseurs?
50. Raffman, 8586.
51. One may actually go back at least to Captain Beefheart.
52. Lerdahl, Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems, 115.
And, though Lerdahl doesnt mention this, it may take a bit more
time to assess value with art that is unfamiliar. As Charles Rosen
has pointed out in a review of Taruskins The Oxford History of
Western Music, Works of modernism notoriously require relistening, rereading, reexperiencing. With music, we must learn what
to listen foror, indeed, what not to listen for. Rosen, From
the Troubadours to Sinatra: Part II, New York Review of Books
(March 9, 2006).
53. The third is Cavell: Im not sure where he is on this matter.
Fortunately, we dont need to know the preferences of any of
those three to know that Raffmans claim that dodecaphonic pieces
fail to engender musical feeling experiences is false: we can
consult our own experience. However, as it is conceivable that
there is a reader or two of the present article who cannot
determine the clear falsity of Raffmans remark from his or her
own listening past, I am happy to let such readers know that I am
quite certain that she is wrong based on my own personal feeling
experiences during many serial works.
54. Taruskin, Does Nature Call the Tune?, in The Danger of Music,
55. Taruskin, The Poietic Fallacy, 320321.
56. Stuckenschmidt, 97.
57. Andrew Mead has made a related point. Tonal forms as they have
developed reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to the possibilities of


Perspectives of New Music

the tonal system, to the point where certain aspects of tonal form
are inextricable from tonality. Similarly, the twelve-tone system
possesses its own particular form generating tendencies, based on
the sorts of relationships available within it. However, given the
wide range of strategies available in each system, it is not inconceivable that there may be an intersection of the two systems
strategies which might lead to a degree of similarity that would not
belie the integrity of either tonality or the twelve-tone system.
Tonal Forms in Arnold Schoenbergs Twelve-Tone Music,
Music Theory Spectrum 9 (1987), 92.
58. Raffman, 85.
59. Cavell, Music Discomposed, in Must We Mean What We Say,
60. Cavell notes that Saint-Sans thought Rite of Spring was a base
trick and ended up stripped of dignity himself.
61. Ibid., 205206.
62. In his contribution to David Copes colloquy on computer
creation of works in the style of Bach, Daniel Dennett notes that,
Many find this vision of creativity deeply unsettling. Some would
add that it is . . . crass, shallow, philistine, despicable, or even
obscene. Collision Detection, Muselot, and Scribble, in
Virtual Music: Computer Synthesis of Musical Style (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2001) 283.
63. Consider again the effect that particular row choices have had in
Berg. Scruton has written that in that composers Violin Concerto,
the serial organization is subverted by the use of a tone-row
which divides into two distinct and clearly tonal regions: G minor,
and B major/F sharp major. And from the outset the serial
structure is submerged by the surface elaborations. There is a
melodic movement, beginning in the first motif on arpeggiated
fifths, that sustains itself through repetition and parallelism, and
causes us to hear tonal harmonies even in the most discordant of
the orchestral chords. When the music comes home at last, to the
lovely prayer in which Berg quotes from Bachs setting of Es ist
genug, it comes home also to the second tonality of the tone-row,
and uses all the devices of triadic tonality. Scruton, The Aesthetics
of Music 298298. Obviously, one cant subvert tone rows without consideration of their pitch orders and how they will be used.
Another example of the effect of twelve-tone choices on the feel of

Tonality, Musical Form, and Aesthetic Value


a piece is the Adagio of Sessionss Third Symphony, which is so

clearly elegiac that nothing the composer could say seemed capable
of convincing listeners that the movement was anything but a
heartfelt response to the death of Koussevitsky. See Koh, The
Twelve-Tone Method, xvi, 3143 and Andrea Olmstead, Roger
Sessions, A Biography (New York: Routledge, 2008), 316327.
64. To resort for a moment to personal preferences, I can report that I
sometimes think that if I hear one more instantiation of the
twelve-bar blues form I might have to strangle myself with a guitar
string. From my own somewhat jaded perch, any alteration, even
as a result of error or omission, is likely to make a blues tune more
enjoyable. Im not alone in this, I dont think. The Shaggs werent
revered in some quarters because of their mastery of traditional
pop song forms: quite the contrary in fact. And, as noted above,
extreme metal groups clearly work hard to make pieces that are
very difficult to predict either melodically or rhythmicallyno
matter how great a variety of music listeners have heard or studied
before. It could be said that it is as hard to headbang to
Meshuggah as to waltz to Schoenberg. Those are not necessarily
faults. Some people enjoy precisely that difficulty (after all, dance
has also changed since Strausss time); others have no particular
interest in either waltzing or headbanging in the first place.