The Psychology of Tonality

by nehadosh

I’m going to be honest – I’m trying to appreciate atonal music for its technique and originality, but there’s something about atonality that makes me inherently uncomfortable. I’m not sure what it is – perhaps the rejection of the structure that I’m so used to hearing is jarring, or perhaps it’s simply an acquired taste. As Smith and Schmuckler state in their paper, The Perception of Tonal Structure Through the Differentiation and Organization of Pitches, tonality is equated with levels of stability in the chords. The tonic has the “maximum stability”, and is at the top of the hierarchy of notes associated with the tonic.

The findings of their various studies seemed to resonate well with the way my peers and I perceive tonality. The researchers found that we have a higher capacity for memorizing stable chords rather than atonal ones, and often incorrectly remember atonal chords as tonal chords. This paralleled closely with the way our class reacted to different types of music we’ve heard: I heard a lot more people humming “La donna e mobile” or one of the Bach sonatas as they made their way out of class than any of the modernism pieces we heard. Put simply, it’s easier to sing along with something whose structure we can understand rather than a random series of notes that have little commonality with one another. As rationalizing beings, it makes sense that we tend to remember (and prefer) a work that gives us a framework upon which to interpret the art.

The researchers also concluded that we’re able to differentiate different sounds from one another, and have a set preference the way the tones are organized in chords. In fact, nearly all the participants had a shared understanding of which notes seemed to “fit” with one another in relation to the tonic and which ones did not. This evidence lends support to the idea of a universal consensus about the frequency combinations that add or detract from overall appreciation. In addition, it can be used to explain the tonality over atonality preferences. Although it’s interesting to explore different sounds like the Tristan chord, it doesn’t seem sustainable. Since we’re constantly trying to reduce the randomness and chaos in the world in the way we perceive it, we’ll ultimately reject atonality because it actively increases the amount of disorder that we’re working so hard to minimize. The reason why resolution in a piece makes the listener feel the way they do is because there is a natural tendency towards tonality: it makes us feel safe, it makes us feel comfortable, and it makes us feel stable again.