Here is an interesting article on the subject of music perception and different musical styles, i.e., atonality and everything else. Barring the ludicrous statements that often come with science popularizations (for example, it is stated in this article that something can be more random than something random), it has always seemed to me that invoking the concepts of predictability and expectation to explain the “popularity” — or level of appreciation — of certain musical styles is, at best, naive.
First of all, does the popularity of a musical piece, not to mention an entire musical style, really say something concrete about how the human brain works, or rather something concrete about the zeitgeist? Just because a piece is “popular” does not mean it is because it fits the natural workings of the brain. History is an important component to how music is received and judged, and often this aspect of music is neglected. Second of all, just because atonal music was panned by critics and audiences “who have found it difficult to follow” — and to this day is remains criticized by many (Who cares if you listen?) — does not mean that such music is unpopular because it doesn’t fit with some fundamental process of the human brain. I am sure some said critics cannot “follow” classical Indian music either, but that does not mean Indian classical music is contrary to the processes of the brain. Third, this idea of expectation and prediction, and the idea that an audience member is sitting and predicting, and when predictions go awry then the “boos” start to fly, this concept feels to me a bit Western-centric. Not all musical traditions are as focused on modulation and the goal of resolution as Western classical music. Fourth, but certainly not finally, the author claims that composers of popular music owe their success to strict formulas: “… many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain.” Whatever “strict musical formulae” are, I don’t think Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven followed them. Each of these composers are not remembered for any formulaic music, and definitely not for producing music that was “easy on the ear.”