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Journal Article

Atonal music: Can uncertainty lead to pleasure?


Mencke,  Iris
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
Center for Music in the Brain, Department of Clinical Medicine, Aarhus University and The Royal Academy of Music;


Omigie,  Diana
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London;


Wald-Fuhrmann,  Melanie
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Mencke, I., Omigie, D., Wald-Fuhrmann, M., & Brattico, E. (2019). Atonal music: Can uncertainty lead to pleasure? Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12: 979. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00979.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0002-BC92-5
In recent years, the field of neuroaesthetics has gained considerable attention with music being a favored object of study. The majority of studies concerning music have, however, focused on the experience of Western tonal music (TM), which is characterized by tonal hierarchical organization, a high degree of consonance, and a tendency to provide the listener with a tonic as a reference point during the listening experience. We argue that a narrow focus on Western TM may have led to a one-sided view regarding the qualities of the aesthetic experience of music since Western art music from the 20th and 21st century like atonal music (AM) – while lacking a tonal hierarchical structure, and while being highly dissonant and hard to predict – is nevertheless enjoyed by a group of avid listeners. We propose a research focus that investigates, in particular, the experience of AM as a novel and compelling way with which to enhance our understanding of both the aesthetic appreciation of music and the role of predictive models in the context of musical pleasure. We use music theoretical analysis and music information retrieval methods to demonstrate how AM presents the listener with a highly uncertain auditory environment. Specifically, an analysis of a corpus of 100 musical segments is used to illustrate how tonal classical music and AM differ quantitatively in terms of both key and pulse clarity values. We then examine person related, extrinsic and intrinsic factors, that point to potential mechanisms underlying the appreciation and pleasure derived from AM. We argue that personality traits like “openness to experience,” the framing of AM as art, and the mere exposure effect are key components of such mechanisms. We further argue that neural correlates of uncertainty estimation could represent a central mechanism for engaging with AM and that such contexts engender a comparatively weak predictive model in the listener. Finally we argue that in such uncertain contexts, correct predictions may be more subjectively rewarding than prediction errors since they signal to the individual that their predictive model is improving.