There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).
How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.
The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).
Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.