Music science typically and naturally focuses on experts' perceptual, cognitive, and aesthetic responses to music. Novices receive far less empirical and theoretical attention. This asymmetry could eventually constrain or limit the discipline. To illustrate this point, existing data are used to compare the performance of experts and novices in a variety of music paradigms. Experts are sensitive to music's tonal materials (e.g., octaves, intervals) and their listening preferences and evaluative standards reflect this sensitivity. In contrast, novices are often less sensitive to music's tonal materials, and their listening preferences and evaluative standards reflect this insensitivity. A music science that included novices more fully would be more comprehensive and better prepared to address basic questions about music's evolution and its universal structure.
Audiences consistently reject contemporary orchestral music. One reason given for this is that inaccessible form and syntax cause cognitive/perceptual difficulties for listeners. Another possible explanation is that contemporary music is impoverished in emotional or referential expression. Why do listeners say they reject atonal music? We compared their responses to tonal and serial works by the same two composers (Schoenberg and Webern). Listeners rejected the atonal works, found them less expressive along some affective dimensions but not others, and found them less rich in referential meanings. In fact, emotional and referential considerations determined preference at least as strongly as syntactic considerations. We discuss the modern music revolution in this light and consider the importance of nonsyntactic aesthetic dimensions in a psychology of music.
One can distinguish a culturally valued aesthetic response to music's intrinsic syntax from a culturally devalued aesthetic response to music's more extrinsic meaning. Experts probably hold a highly syntactic aesthetic ideal. By some accounts, novice listeners hold a less syntactic, more romantic ideal. If so, two aesthetic styles would coexist in musical culture, with experts broadcasting their syntactic ideal to the culture and listeners echoing it in their ideas of musical greatness. However, novices would have a musical split personality—with romantic preference at odds with the expert ideal, but a syntactic ideal of greatness congruent with it. An analysis of American classical music culture of the 1940s (using preference, eminence, space allocation, and musical performance data on Western composers collected by Farnsworth, Hevner-Mueller, etc.) confirmed these predictions. The results indicate the importance of nonsyntactic responses to listeners and suggest further research on these aesthetic dimensions which the culture's syntactic focus has orphaned. Such research might illuminate another cultural phenomenon—the rejection of contemporary music by audiences.