The future of tonality

British Journal of Aesthetics 49 (4):427-450 (2009)
Abstract
Is the tonal ordering of music, and the order of European triadic tonality in particular, the developed manifestation of an essential musical structure—a structure naturally suited to our human capacity to organize sounds musically? Historically and geographically, triadic tonality is a highly local phenomenon, limited to music beginning in the mid-seventeenth century and, until the nineteenth century, almost wholly confined to the Western European musical tradition. Some theorists accordingly regard tonality as a dispensable aesthetic convention—and one which, moreover, has had its day. For many listeners, however, works within this tradition possess a distinctive ability to embody musical movement and expression. This paper examines Roger Scruton's defense of tonality as developed in the European common practice period. I examine his reasons for supposing that tonality is an ineliminable feature of sounds heard and understood as music. Those reasons, I conclude, are inconclusive; on their own they do not show that tonality either will or should persist as an authoritative musical order. Triadic tonality has, at best, an uncertain future
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