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March 2023

Aesthetic preference and syntactic prototypicality in music: 'tis the gift to be simple

Author(s): Melara, R. J.

Journal/Book: Cognition. 1990; 34: 279-98.

Abstract: In the dominant aesthetic theory, composers are said to use unpredictable events to tease the listener, and make music optimally challenging and therefore aesthetically pleasing. We tested this claim that events optimally discrepant from a schema will be most pleasing. Experts and novices evaluated harmonic progressions at seven levels of syntactic prototypicality. Four results emerged: (1) even novices were extremely sensitive to syntactic atypicality; (2) all subjects found atypical progressions more interesting and complex; (3) novices and undergraduate music students preferred harmonic prototypes, contrary to most aesthetic theories; (4) only music graduate students preferred atypical progressions. We discuss the striking sensitivity of novices to harmonic syntax. We describe differences between an aesthetic theory based on information and uncertainty, and one based on schemas and schema divergence. We also consider the tonal conservatism of most subjects. This conservatism constrains aesthetic theories, and may have implications for music's stylistic evolution.

Keyword(s): Adult Cognition ; Judgment ; Music ; Pitch Perception Human

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