Why Do We Even Listen to New Music?

Many members of the audience could not fathom this new music; their brains—figuratively, but to a certain extent, literally—broke. A brawl ensued, vegetables were thrown, and 40 people were ejected from the theater. It was a fiasco consonant with Stravinsky’s full-bore attack on the received history of classical music, and thus, every delicate sense in the room. “One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,” Gertrude Stein recalled in her memoir. The famous Italian opera composer Giacamo Puccini described the performance to the press as “sheer cacophony.” The critic for the daily newspaper Le Figaro noted that it was a piece of “laborious and puerile barbarity.”

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is now hailed as the most sweepingly influential piece of music composed in the early 20th century, a tectonic shift in form and aesthetic that was, as the critic Alex Ross wrote in his book The Rest Is Noise, “lowdown yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.” Within the brambles of The Rite are the seeds of an entire outgrowth of modernism: jazz, experimental, and electronic music flow back to The Rite. Maybe the Parisian audience wasn’t expecting a feat so unfamiliar and new that night, they simply wanted to hear music they recognized that drew upon the modes and rhythms they had come to know. Life was on one track, and suddenly they were thrust off into the unknown. Instead of a reliable Debussy ballet, many left the theater that night miserable, agitated, with few jettisoned cabbage leaves stuck to their dresses, and for what, just to hear some new music?

One of my favorite pieces of arts criticism is a 2016 article from The Onion titled, “Nation Affirms Commitment to Things They Recognize.” From music to celebrities to clothing brands to conventional ideas of beauty, the joke is self-explanatory: People love the stuff they already know. It’s a dictum too obvious to dissect, a positive-feedback loop as stale as the air in our self-isolation chambers: We love the things we know because we know them and therefore we love them. But there is a physiological explanation for our nostalgia and our desire to seek comfort in the familiar. It can help us understand why listening to new music is so hard, and why it can make us feel uneasy, angry, or even riotous.

It has to do with the plasticity of our brain. Our brains change as they recognize new patterns in the world, which is what makes brains, well, useful. When it comes to hearing music, a network of nerves in the auditory cortex called the corticofugal network helps catalog the different patterns of music. When a specific sound maps onto a pattern, our brain releases a corresponding amount of dopamine, the main chemical source of some of our most intense emotions. This is the essential reason why music triggers such powerful emotional reactions, and why, as an art form, it is so inextricably tied to our emotional responses.


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