Atonal Music as a Model for Investigating Exploratory Behavior

Mencke, Iris; Omigie, Diana; Quiroga-Martinez, David Ricardo and Brattico, Elvira. 2022. Atonal Music as a Model for Investigating Exploratory Behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 16, 793163. ISSN 1662-4548 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Atonal music is often characterized by low predictability stemming from the absence of tonal or metrical hierarchies. In contrast, Western tonal music exhibits intrinsic predictability due to its hierarchical structure and therefore, offers a directly accessible predictive model to the listener. In consequence, a specific challenge of atonal music is that listeners must generate a variety of new predictive models. Listeners must not only refrain from applying available tonal models to the heard music, but they must also search for statistical regularities and build new rules that may be related to musical properties other than pitch, such as timbre or dynamics. In this article, we propose that the generation of such new predictive models and the aesthetic experience of atonal music are characterized by internal states related to exploration. This is a behavior well characterized in behavioral neuroscience as fulfilling an innate drive to reduce uncertainty but which has received little attention in empirical music research. We support our proposal with emerging evidence that the hedonic value is associated with the recognition of patterns in low-predictability sound sequences and that atonal music elicits distinct behavioral responses in listeners. We end by outlining new research avenues that might both deepen our understanding of the aesthetic experience of atonal music in particular, and reveal core qualities of the aesthetic experience in general.

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The Center for Music in the Brain was funded by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF 117).


new music, atonal music, exploratory behavior, predictive processing, aesthetic experience, neuroaesthetics, musical pleasure

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12 May 2022Accepted
22 June 2022Published

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Date Deposited:

19 Jul 2022 10:15

Last Modified:

19 Jul 2022 10:15

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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