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Journal Article

Atonal music as a model for investigating exploratory behavior


Mencke,  Iris       
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Mencke, I., Omigie, D., Quiroga-Martinez, D. R., & Brattico, E. (2022). Atonal music as a model for investigating exploratory behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 16: 793163. doi:10.3389/fnins.2022.793163.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-9FE1-5
Atonal music is often characterized by low predictability stemming from the absence of tonal or metrical hierarchies. In contrast, Western tonal music exhibits intrinsic predictability due to its hierarchical structure and therefore, offers a directly accessible predictive model to the listener. In consequence, a specific challenge of atonal music is that listeners must generate a variety of new predictive models. Listeners must not only refrain from applying available tonal models to the heard music, but they must also search for statistical regularities and build new rules that may be related to musical properties other than pitch, such as timbre or dynamics. In this article, we propose that the generation of such new predictive models and the aesthetic experience of atonal music are characterized by internal states related to exploration. This is a behavior well characterized in behavioral neuroscience as fulfilling an innate drive to reduce uncertainty but which has received little attention in empirical music research. We support our proposal with emerging evidence that the hedonic value is associated with the recognition of patterns in low-predictability sound sequences and that atonal music elicits distinct behavioral responses in listeners. We end by outlining new research avenues that might both deepen our understanding of the aesthetic experience of atonal music in particular, and reveal core qualities of the aesthetic experience in general.