Walter Horn
Brown University (PhD)
It has been claimed by Diana Raffman, that atonal (and in particular serial) music can have no aesthetic value, because it is in an important sense meaningless. This worthlessness is claimed to result from cognitive/psychological facts about human listeners that have been confirmed by empirical investigations such as those conducted by Lerdahl and Jackendoff. Similar assertions about the necessary inferiority of 12-tone music have been made by, among others, Taruskin, Cavell, and Goldman, some of whom echo Raffman’s suggestion that both composers and performers of atonal music are committing a kind of fraud. This paper responds to all of those allegations. In particular, it points out that even if the empirical claim about human cognitive capacities with respect to the discernment of “local structure” in atonal works is assumed to be correct (which is actually quite doubtful), all the arguments brought by the “prosecution” against atonal music that rely on this claim are invalid. It is noted that such arguments by tonality advocates somewhat ironically rely on their own variety of what Taruskin has called “the poietic fallacy,” a gaff which he has frequently accused serialists (and perhaps alea supporters) of committing. Readers are reminded that the main basis for claims of aesthetic worth (or worthlessness) can never be primarily theoretical, but must be principally based on the experiences of beholders.
Keywords Aesthetic Value, Tonality, Musical Form
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