Listening and Re-listening: Opening Your Ears to New Sounds

Hailed as “a virtuosic talent in the guitar world” (X-Press Magazine), American-born Australian classical guitarist Dr Jonathan Fitzgerald has garnered international recognition as a multi-award winning performer and educator. Maintaining a career at the intersection of performance, teaching and artistic research, Jonathan heads the guitar program at the University of Western Australia's Conservatorium of Music, where he oversees one of the most active guitar studios in the country.

A recipient of the Jack L. Frank Award for Excellence in Teaching, Jonathan Fitzgerald has a passion for twentieth and twenty-first century music,.He seeks to make post-tonal compositions more accessible to the public through performances, master classes, and educational workshops and lectures. Jonathan Fitzgerald earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the East­man School of Music and Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Listening and Re-listening: Opening Your Ears to New Sounds

by Jonathan Fitzgerald

You and I grew up listening to tonal mu­sic. Tonality is our first language, our “native tongue.” When we hear music that is of a different language—be it twelve-tone, modal, micro-tonal, etc.—we often don’t know how to make sense of it, and as a result are unable to appreciate it. In fact, sometimes we may find it downright unpleasant.

Everyone’s experienced it. You’re in the lobby after a performance, and you overhear a concert­goer railing against “that modern piece” on the program. Dissonant. Nonsensical. Gibberish. These are terms that are all too often used to describe music written in a foreign, post-tonal language. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself.

Let’s step back for a moment and examine a parallel situation in a different art form: You’re at a poetry reading. Every poem is in English, except for one that is in German. After the reading ends, you overhear a gentleman in the lobby tearing apart the German poem: “unpleas­ant, guttural sounds,” “nonsensical,” “complete gibberish.”

As it turns out, the patron in question can’t speak German, and thus didn’t understand a single word of the poem. It could have been the single greatest work of German poetry ever written—perhaps Goethe or Heine—but he would have hardly been able to distinguish it from the babbling of a toddler. It is easy for us to see, in the context of spoken language, how untenable our hypothetical gentleman’s position is. Of course he didn’t enjoy the poem and found it nonsensical: He doesn’t understand the language! Perhaps less easy to see, however, is that exactly the same is true of music: just because we don’t understand a different musical language does not mean that the work is gibberish.

We’ve been listening to tonal music since in the womb—it is our native language—but there are many, many other musical languages besides tonality. Varèse once said that “chaos is simply the form you’re not listening for,” which is to say that when you hear a piece that seems to be random and nonsensical, it could actually be highly organized and methodical but simply structured in a way that you’re not familiar with. The situation is exactly the same with our poetry lover who found the German poem to be nonsensical not because it was actually gibberish but because he did not understand German vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.

So, what exactly is “tonality,” our native musical language? In the broadest sense, it’s a hierarchical system that organizes pitches around a tonic (i.e., if you’re in C major, the “tonic” is C). You can imagine a solar system, in which the tonic is the sun, and the other pitches revolve around it and are drawn to it. The idea of “goal directed motion,” in which musical moments are always moving towards a tonal goal or “cadence” and ultimately to the tonic, is the essence of the tonal system.

All composers from roughly 1600-1900 worked within the bounds of this shared system called tonality. Imagine a stencil out­line of Van Gogh’s Night Stars where each artist works within the predetermined lines, coloring and shading in their individual way. What makes it interesting is how each artist works within the system differently—this one uses black here, another chooses gray, another purple, etc. Having this kind of predetermined system in music has some real advantages for listeners in that it allows them to have a common set of expectations with which composers can play.

So why was tonality, which worked so well for three hundred years, finally abandoned? The short answer is that in the second half of the nineteenth century, composers essentially pushed the boundaries of the tonal system until it broke. To go back to our stencil analogy, around 1850 or so composers began coloring outside the lines, blurring and obscuring them. The ques­tion then becomes how far can one color outside the lines before the lines cease to mean anything? How far can you push the boundaries of a system before the system breaks down?

It was Schoenberg who, with the composi­tion of his Book of the Hanging Gardens in 1908-09, took all of the boundary pushing of the late nineteenth century to its logical conclusion. He believed that composers were working so far outside the lines that the lines had become irrelevant; thus he tossed them out altogether and started with a blank canvas. Instead of using the seven pitches of a major or a minor scale, arranged hierarchically and orbiting around the tonic, Schoenberg used equally all twelve pitches contained in the octave. Music composed in this way is often called “atonal,” though Schoenberg felt this term implied that the music was somehow “anti-tonal.” Thus he preferred the designation “pan-tonal,” suggesting that this music encompasses all keys simultaneously.

Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens illustrates a fundamental and revolutionary change in the landscape of Western music. For three hundred years prior, all composers had essentially worked within a shared system and a common set of parameters called tonality. Now, instead of all composers working within the confines of this system, each composer was free to create his own system. The lines of the stencil became a blank canvas in which everyone was free to create his own lines and structure. This resulted in composers using throughout the twentieth century many disparate systems to write music.

On the one hand, this shift to post-tonality was very good for the listener, as now limitless possibilities existed for composers to create music that was potentially much more diverse and interesting. On the other hand, a closed system such as tonality has the benefit of providing the listener with a relatively consistent set of expectations. In the absence of such expectations, post-tonal music can be less accessible since listeners must constantly reorient themselves to the unique language and expectations established by an individual composer—expectations sometimes even established by an individual piece.

This, then, is one of the primary stum­bling blocks when music lovers approach post-tonal music for the first time: It requires some effort to understand. As a non-German speaker listening to a German poem for the first time, it would sound like gibberish to me. But if I spent some time learning a bit of German vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, pretty soon individual words would begin to pop out at me. I might understand a phrase or two, or at least get a general sense of what the poem was about. And gradually over time that poem would transform from gib­berish to words and sentences that I could understand and be moved by. It is exactly the same with post-tonal music.

Another and perhaps an even more pronounced stumbling block to enjoying post-tonal music is what we perceive as “dis­sonance.” It sounds discordant, unpleasant—it’s not “pretty.” In tonal music dissonance usually serves to create tension, which almost invariably resolves to consonance and relax­ation. We have been conditioned since birth to hear dissonance function this way, but this is often not the way dissonance behaves in post-tonal music. In a post-tonal context, dissonance’s primary purpose is not neces­sarily to create tension; instead, it can simply be a tone color, one of many options on the painter’s palette.

I can assure you that the more you listen to music that at first seems “dissonant,” the less dissonant you will find it, and the payoff for getting past that initial unpleasantness is often well worth the effort. The best way I can illustrate this is with food and drink that we all would agree are “acquired tastes.” For example, I love espresso and have spent a rather obscene amount of money on my equipment. I could pull the single greatest espresso shot that mankind has ever known, but if I gave it to someone who has never had coffee before, that person would find it absolutely repulsive. “It’s bitter!” would likely be the chief complaint. I, however, do not taste the bitterness anymore; all I taste are the wonderful and complex flavors—chocolatey, nutty, citrusy—that I love about espresso. I also really enjoy strong cheeses, much to the chagrin of my wife. Were I to give a nice Stilton Blue to someone who has only ever had American Cheese, that person would probably spit it out. With a little bit of effort, however, one can overcome the initial unpleasant flavors associated with both of these food stuffs. I can tell you from experience that the wealth of rich, complex flavors waiting for you past that initial hurdle of distaste is well worth whatever small investment of time and discomfort is required up front.

So what is the best way to begin approaching post-tonal music? The first step is to adjust your expectations. If I sit down to listen to a German poem but expect it to use English vocabulary and sentence structure, I am going to be disappointed. The same will be true if I sit down to listen to a Webern piece and expect it to behave like a Mozart symphony. In the absence of the familiar expectations of tonality, it can be very helpful for the listener to learn a little about the language of the composer, or even the individual piece the listener is explor­ing. This background information can help us reorient ourselves and give us a new set of expectations with which to make sense of the music. Finally, perhaps most important, listen and re-listen ad infinitum. The more time you spend immersing yourself in a new language, be it spoken or musical, the more familiar and less foreign it will sound. And pretty soon that poem or musical work that sounded like complete gibberish will start to make sense—so much so that you might just find that you like what you hear.  (Learn more about the author)