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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

Del Tredici's defiantly friendly identification or solidarity with the audience is reflected in the tougher, more “scientific” (or at any rate, more academic) stance adopted by Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943), a composer who has been impelled by postmodernist qualms to study structural linguistics and cognitive psychology in an effort to understand and possibly define the limits within which music must be composed if it is to be intelligible to listeners. This project is the most controversial of all, precisely because of its theoretical nature. It is not merely a description of one person's composing practice, but seeks general truths on which prescriptions can be based. Lerdahl has been accused of promoting his own music by “universalizing” it as a norm for listening. “No,” he has objected, “I do not tell people how to listen; I try to find out how they listen.”51 Not everybody wants to know this, and there are good reasons why.

Like all utopian ideas, modernism is basically optimistic. The notion that composers are free to organize their music in unprecedented ways, and that it is up to audiences to adapt to them, is based on a “behaviorist” psychological model. Such a model assumes that the mind is a tabula rasa, a clean slate on which experience is inscribed and reinforced by practice. The mind's activities are conceived as responses to external stimuli, and forms of behavior can be learned, according to this theory, through positive or negative reinforcements (a.k.a. rewards and punishments). Serial music, or any other kind of highly structured music, however novel, is no less intelligible than tonal music, on this model; it is just that listeners have less practice with it. This is the model of mental behavior associated with B. F. Skinner (1904–90), one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, whose theories had a profound impact on modern educational methods—an impact that coincided, as it happened, with the heyday of academic serialism.

Skinnerism received a strong challenge in the 1960s from the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), who sought to explain how people can learn to form original utterances—sentences they have never heard spoken—on the sole basis of imitating languages that they hear, without any formal instruction in rules. In the case of one's native language, after all, one always “learns the rules” after one has already learned the language. To a large extent, therefore, the rules governing language must be axiomatic assumptions of which we are not conscious. They must be instinctual.

Or, to put it the way Chomsky did, all natural language possesses a “deep structure” that conforms to the innate structure of the mind—a concept that behaviorists had long since rejected. It is a pessimistic concept, since if there is such a thing as an innate mental structure, then it has limits that can in principle be discovered. In the Chomskian view, the mind is not “perfectible.” Rather, it is decisively biased. There are some things we humans can learn and some things that we cannot, some ways of processing information that we can practice, some that we cannot. And if that is so, it follows that the mind is no tabula rasa. It is equipped to process only certain kinds of information.

In 1983, together with a linguist named Ray Jackendoff, Lerdahl published a novel study of tonal harmony that sought, on the Chomskian model, not to build up a theory of harmonic practice on the basis of its materials (chords and progressions), but rather to uncover or infer the psychological processes (“transformations”) to which musicians and other listeners intuitively subject the chords and progressions of tonal music in order to perceive (and produce) “meaningful” utterances. Borrowing directly from Chomsky's vocabulary, Lerdahl and Jackendoff called their book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music.

A generative theory of language, they write, models the “unconscious knowledge” that users of a language innately possess as “a formal system of principles or rules called a grammar, which describes (or ‘generates’) the possible sentences of the language.” The objective is to infer the mental rules that make linguistic (or musical) structures coherent and intelligible to listeners, and the rules that make coherent and intelligible linguistic (or musical) structures “creatable” by speakers or composers. Ideally, if the theory is correct, the rules in both cases are the same. Language and music must communicate on the basis of assumptions and processes that composers and listeners innately share. The question a generative theory answers is, “How?”

That tonal music (like natural language) is hierarchically structured is obvious to all competent listeners. The essential task that all theories of tonal music perform is that of describing its hierarchies. The novelty of Lerdahl and Jackendoff's generative theory is its Chomskian assumption that listeners perceive hierarchies when listening to a piece of tonal music intuitively, without having to be taught to make such discriminations. They propose four main intuitive processes that all listeners bring to bear on tonal music:

  1. (1) grouping structure

  2. (2) metrical structure

  3. (3) time-span reduction

  4. (4) prolongational reduction

The first “expresses a hierarchical segmentation of the piece into motives, phrases, and sections.” The second “expresses the intuition that the events of the piece are related to a regular alternation of strong and weak beats at a number of hierarchical levels.” The third “assigns to the pitches of the piece a hierarchy of ‘structural importance’ with respect to their position in grouping and metrical structure.” And the fourth “assigns to the pitches a hierarchy that expresses harmonic and melodic tension and relaxation, continuity and progression.” In addition, the authors posit what they call well-formedness rules, which “specify the possible structural descriptions.” That is, they act as gatekeepers between meaningful utterances and “noise,” and (for example) tell us when we have heard a mistake in execution. And they posit preference rules, which “designate out of the possible structural descriptions those that correspond to experienced listeners’ hearings of any particular piece.”52 That is, they mediate possible contradictions or ambiguities among the simultaneously processed hierarchies. It is at this last level that really creative composing and listening take place.

None of this is news. As a theory of tonal music Lerdahl and Jackendoff's “generative grammar” is uncontroversial except insofar as it describes musical perception as intuitive, the product of an innate mental predisposition, rather than a wholly learned behavior. (In other words, it is controversial in exactly the same way, and to exactly the same extent, that Chomsky's theories are controversial within linguistics.) Within the relatively settled world of tonal music, the distinction between calling perception intuitive and calling it learned did not make enough of a practical difference to warrant much dispute.

The book contained one hugely contentious passage, however: the last section of the next-to-last chapter, titled “Remarks on Contemporary Music,” in which the authors took up what must have been a pressing concern for most readers who had worked through the text to that point. The whole basis and justification of nontonal or “posttonal” music, as everybody knew, had been the assumption that musical perceptions were wholly learned, and therefore infinitely malleable. Could that assumption be reconciled with Lerdahl and Jackendoff's assumption that musical perceptions were in part intuitive—that is, ingrained and “natural”?

Obviously, it could not. Where there is no pitch hierarchy, and where (as a result of “a tendency to avoid repetition,”53 long since asserted by Schoenberg as a sort of ethical imperative) there is no metrical hierarchy, listeners cannot perform the intuitive tasks on which a generative grammar depends. They cannot group the music into meaningful segments; they cannot identify strong and weak beats; they cannot assign individual pitches any structural importance on which the experience of tension or relaxation depends. Prevented from applying well-formedness rules, the listener cannot distinguish a significant musical utterance from “noise.” The conclusion must be that, as far as unaided listeners are concerned (as opposed to formal analysts, eyeing the score), all atonal music is cognitive noise.

We have seen that some modernist composers (most notably Krenek and Cage) had accepted that characterization of their music, arguing that the question of “understanding” is esthetically irrelevant. (Others, notably Babbitt, have claimed that their atonal music is the cognitive equal of tonal music, a claim that depends utterly on the Skinner model.) Lerdahl and Jackendoff, unwilling to be sidetracked, assert that their judgments about atonal music are not concerned with compositional practice. “We do not wish to address the cultural or aesthetic reasons for this tendency, nor do we want to make value judgements,”54 they insist. Their concern is not with the composer but with the listener.

But it is hard to shake free of value judgments, and it is questionable whether, for example, the following passage from Lerdahl and Jackendoff's notorious “section 11.6” can really be read as esthetically neutral:

To the degree that the applicability of these various aspects of musical grammar is attenuated, the listener will infer less hierarchical structure from the musical surface. As a result, nonhierarchical aspects of musical perception (such as timbre and dynamics) tend to play a greater, compensatory role in musical organization. But this is not compensation in kind; the relative absence of hierarchical dimensions tends to result in a kind of music perceived very locally, often as a sequence of gestures and associations.55

The touted complexity of serial music (or of Carter's celebrated polyrhythmic structures) is thus challenged on its own terms. Music structured nonhierarchically is implicitly reduced to a kind of nonlinguistic or prelinguistic communication—grunts, sign language, or otherwise rudimentary conveyance of primitive needs and moods, if that. Whatever the complexity of its structural organization (discoverable from the score), its level of aural communication is drastically coarsened and blunted. The impression of a value judgment despite disclaimers is confirmed by a nearly explicit assertion toward the end of the discussion, where the “total serialism” of the Darmstadt and Princeton schools is the object of scrutiny. To the extent that nonpitch elements are serialized, they only enlarge the domains

that do not directly engage the listener's ability to organize a musical surface. In each of these cases, the gulf between compositional and perceptual principles is wide and deep: insofar as the listener's abilities are not engaged, he cannot infer a rich organization no matter how a piece has been composed or how densely packed its musical surface is. It is in this sense that an apparently simple Mozart sonata is more complex than many twentieth-century pieces that at first seem highly intricate.56

In the end, although the authors contend that their theory “says nothing about the relative value of compositional techniques,” and allow that “whatever helps a composer compose his music is of value to him,” their parting shot (with its deliberate allusion to the notorious title—“Who Cares If You Listen?”—under which Babbitt's most widely read statement of Skinnerian principles was published in 1958) was read the only way it could be, as a gauntlet:

We believe, nonetheless, that our theory is relevant to compositional problems, in that it focuses detailed attention on the facts of hearing. To the extent that a composer cares about his listeners, this is a vital issue.57

These tough words were widely remarked, and lots of umbrage was taken. But they could be dismissed on the grounds that Lerdahl and Jackendoff's proposals were backed up by nothing more than a hypothesis, and also because they had only negative implications. The authors’ gloomy diagnosis of the state of contemporary composition was not accompanied by any suggestions for improvement. Without a positive program, it was just one antimodernist tirade among many. (Nor was it even the first to claim a “scientific” basis: Paul Hindemith, in his composition textbook of 1937, had tried to demonstrate the “unnaturalness” of atonal music by referring to the natural harmonic series; but as everybody knew that the practice of tonal harmony did not entirely conform to natural acoustical phenomena anyway, the demonstration fell flat.)


(51) Fred Lerdahl, “Tonality and Paranoia: A Reply to Boros,” Perspectives of New Music XXXIV, no. 1 (winter 1996): 246.

(52) Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1983), pp. 8–9.

(53) Ibid., p. 297.

(54) Ibid.

(55) Ibid., p. 298.

(56) Ibid., p. 300.

(57) Ibid., p. 301.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009009.xml