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Sunday, September 9, 2007 -- 8:30 am

It's probably worth pointing out that when I object to the proposition that we prefer music we find familiar, I'm not discounting the role of learning and cognition in music appreciation. (Quite the contrary, actually.) Some decades ago I procured an audio cassette of Bach instrumental concerti. The first recording on the tape was of Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in d minor, S. 1052 I believe, and I remember the piece at first seeming incomprehensible to my naive ears. It actually took a couple listens before I could get my mind around it, and before long it was one of my favorite pieces. To this day, I can play long passages of it back in my head, counterpoint and all, even though I haven't owned a working recording for at least 10 years.

This isn't to say, even, that I've ever acquired a full grasp of the compositional structure in the piece. Bach's writing obviously preceded the emergence of Sonata form, and he developed formal structures of his own that I've only recently been taught how to listen for. But I clearly learned something during the first few listenings, and the piece had to become somewhat familiar to me so I could begin to appreciate its more prominent features in the first place, such as the first movement's climactic series of struck suspensions. I'm noticing the same happening as I begin to acquaint myself with Indian ragas.

A lot of this stands to reason, and I consider it a logical consequence of my thoughts about aesthetics rather than a counterexample. The form of a piece, as I've defined it earlier, will necessarily contain not just what theoreticians call first-order features (notes, dynamics, articulation, tempo, timbre) but also second and higher-order features (motifs, patterns). On the most elementary level, let's suppose the composer has a recurring theme in which the two chords leading up to the cadence are played at a mezzo-forte volume, but the cadence itself is piano, the first several times this landmark occurs in the piece. Later in the piece, at some kind of climax, the cadence is finally played mezzo forte or even forte. On first hearing, the listener will probably be mildly (and subconsciously) surprised that the piece defies the Western convention of an emphatic cadence, and may hanker wistfully for a loud conclusion (either to live up to convention or because of some deeper, universal psychological necessity), but may also resign herself to the internal logic of the piece if the pattern is repeated enough. On this first hearing, the loud emphasis at the climax will come as a source of satisfaction.

This listener's second hearing of the piece will be completely different, because she'll know that the satisfying climax is coming, and will look for it every time the motif comes along. The disappointment of her expectations on each occasion will build tension that probably didn't exist during the first hearing, and, when that expectation is finally satisfied, will deliver a feeling of release that wasn't available the first time around. Considering the complexity and level of nuance in most pieces of music worth listening to, we can start to get a sense of how music can continue to be enjoyable to us upon repeated listening because of the number of details and formal features waiting to be discovered.

This type of engagement with the music is not, however, what I'm thinking of when I make remarks about people prefering music they find familiar. A national anthem or Christmas carol, for example, don't exactly offer uncharted conceptual territory for our ears to explore (although Christmas carols sometimes contain archaic -- and therefore exotic -- harmonies that are pleasing in their own right). In such examples, people seem to be deriving their satisfaction from something other than the content of the music itself -- or merely enjoying it because it's familiar. By way of analogy, travelers in a foreign country may discover mutual comraderie based on nothing more than speaking a common language, even though they would despise each other back home; likewise, a brotherly sentiment toward one's teammates tends to fade away from the athletic field. Such relationships aren't personal, but utilitarian. By the same token, the sentiments aroused by a familiar tune are often more likely the result of certain personal experiences we're reminded of, than by the inherent merit of the tune itself.