One of the reasons I was attracted to Cage's music at an early age is that he famously declared to have no feeling for harmony, a sentiment I recognize clearly in myself. A few years ago, I had a piano teacher who claimed that he could hear the tonal structures in big romantic symphonic works, a feat I find staggering. Despite many years of enthusiastic and studied involvement, I can't hear key changes or any of the other great harmonic movements that constitute nineteenth-century tonality as demonstrated by Schenker, Rosen, and numerous other well-respected musicologists. While this hasn't impaired my enjoyment of listening to music generally, I believe that my inability to hear the elements widely proclaimed to be the very essence of the music steered me to a music that didn't hold these values with as much importance.
Nicholas Cook starts his book Music, Imagination and Culture from the observation that the majority of listeners don't hear the formal structures of classical pieces, despite the near ubiquity of program notes and education that leads us in this direction. He spends considerable time providing evidence from ad hoc and formal academic psychological studies as well as his own experiences, many of which I lived as well. But rather than approach this discrepancy as a problem that needs to be solved, Cook finds that it is one of the defining attributes of musical culture.
Deep structure commentators often draw on language metaphors for music, divided into phrases and sentences, but the language comparison is rooted in production. Looking at reception, the comparison falls apart. The knowledge required to produce music is extremely complex, but generally irrelevant to the listening experience. Piano fingering is a superb examples of a detailed and deep musical competence that is completely unnecessary for a listener, completely essential for a pianist. More generally, the asymmetry between production and reception for music is "embodied in the very means by which musicians imagine sound as music" (85). An examples of non-musical imagination is the dreaded earworm, a piece of music that gets stuck in our head in an endless cycle of half-choruses and melodic fragments. Cook dissects these fairly well, showing that they aren't really complete pieces of music, just isolated fragments in a dream-like state. A musician has a whole other imagination portfolio, a multiplicity extending beyond simple technical matters and extending all the way to the deep structure so highly touted in theory and musical criticism.
At least within the context of western art music , the great stimulus for the musical imagination and the depositor of the deep structure is the score. But the surface details vary from one performer, or even from one performance, to the next. Every performance becomes an improvisation, a marked contrast from an electronic realization or a recording, which is the same every time. "A fluent performance means that the notational symbols are stripped off their burden of signification and then jettisoned" (129). This is especially true for chamber music, where the performers achieve a level of synchronicity that is absent from a complex orchestral composition, such as Stockhausen's Gruppen, where the individual performers have no innate sense of what role they play in the overall musical fabric.
The western art music culture tells us what's important, what to listen for, based from the musician's perspective, but doesn't account for the way people really listen to music. Cook calls the former 'musicological' listening ("whose purpose is the establishment of facts or the formulation of theories") to distinguish the 'musical' way, "listening to music for purposes of direct aesthetic gratification". Virtually all academic music psychology and perception research speaks to musicological listening, which we all do when we read a score along with a performance, or even listen to music in preparation for a review. Of a completely different order is the deep, immersive trance we get alone in our headphones. Although we engage in many types of listening, at best the musicological listening should enhance our musical listening, not substitute for it. This is why music appreciation classes don't have much success in teaching people to enjoy music. "To think that one can understand music in some abstract, symbolical sense that can be separated from such aesthetic participation is simply to misunderstand the whole nature of the enterprise" (186).
Placing the value of music on its abstract relationships as specified in the score does more than evade how people actually listen to music, it emphasizes notes, intervals and fancy chords as if they are more than notational conventions with no objective foundation in reality. Violinists and singers, unconstrained by the equal-tempered system, demonstrably diverge from the rigid tuning systems, simply based on what sounds right at the time. These unspecified intonational variations are what separate the good from the great, the mechanical from the human. The score is discarded, left behind as the music is created. The confusion arises between the rationalizations and the tools used for creation, and their inchoate effects, where the musical significance is found.
Music, Imagination and Culture is available from Amazon, as a paperback, for $74! Check your local university library instead. Thanks to the anonymous commenter way back when who recommended it.