The Unasked Question


Leonard Bernstein seated at piano, making annotations to musical score, 1955

by Samuel Jay Keyser

I recently had occasion to read Leonard Bernstein’s 1972-73 Norton lectures entitled The Unanswered Question. (The title comes from a composition by Charles Ives.) Previous holders of the Harvard chair from the field of music include Igor Stravinsky (1939–40) and Paul Hindemith (1949–50).

Those lectures are a barometer of what Bernstein called the third crisis of the 20th century: the “split between the tonal and the nontonal.” Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bernstein all shared the same intuition that tonal music is natural and atonal music is not. There is independent evidence for this. As Isabelle Peretz (2001) observed, “Psychologists were the first to point out that tonal scale systems are almost universal in the music of the world’s cultures.”

On the other hand, there is no evidence that the selection of a tone row consisting of 12 randomly selected notes has any claim at all to universality. Compositions built on this foundation were introduced definitively by Arnold Schoenberg early in the 20th century. Richard Taruskin (2005, 321) in a discussion of Schoenberg’s 1911 Sechs kleine Klavierstcke (“Six Little Pieces for the Piano”) says:

No single pitch emerges from the texture with sufficient frequency to suggest itself as a candidate tonic; fifth relations are not salient; major or minor triads are not in evidence, nor are dominant-seventh chords. It would appear that the whole conventional vocabulary of music has been suppressed in favor of private language [italics mine].

Here is what Stravinsky had to say in The Poetics of Music (1956), the published version of his 1940 lectures:

It just so happens that our contemporary epoch offers us the example of a musical culture that is day by day losing the sense of continuity and the taste for a common language.

Individual caprice and intellectual anarchy, which tend to control the world in which we live, isolate the artist from his fellow-artists and condemn him to appear as a monster in the eyes of the public; a monster of originality, inventor of his own language, of his own vocabulary, and of the apparatus of his art. The use of already employed materials and of established forms is usually forbidden him. So he comes to the point of speaking an idiom without relation to the world that listens to him. His art becomes truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side [italics mine].

Paul Hindemith in his published version of his 1949-50 lectures, A Composer’s World (1961), echoed those sentiments:

Have we not heard many times of tendencies in modern music to avoid these tonal effects? It seems to me that attempts at avoiding them are as promising as attempts at avoiding the effects of gravitation … And yet, some composers who have the ambition to eliminate tonality succeed to a certain degree in depriving the listener of the benefits of gravitation [italics mine].

Ray Jackendoff in his 1977 review of Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question illuminated the comment:

Hindemith’s argument is not the layman’s reaction of ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘The music is too dissonant.’ He is arguing rather that atonality goes against human nature, or perhaps even against nature itself, and that this fact explains its difficulty and lack of appeal.

This brings us to Bernstein himself. Schoenberg, the father of atonality, died in 1951, Stravinsky the master of neo-classical tonality and incomparable rhythmic innovation, died twenty years later. The death of these two masters of different realms in the world of music led Bernstein to write:

Now both Schoenberg and Stravinsky were gone; where was a young composer to turn for guidance and inspiration? To himself, of course; composers were now suddenly thrown back on their own resources. And what they found there, naturally, was their innate and long-denied sense of tonality [italics mine].

Bernstein doesn’t indicate which composers he had in mind, but an inquiry to my friend and colleague at Columbia University, Fred Lerdahl, co-author with Jackendoff of the seminal A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983) produced this list of likely candidates:

In the early 1970s a number of composers started to revisit tonality in this or that way: Luciano Berio in his Sinfonia, Jacob Druckman in a few orchestral pieces, George Rochberg in his chamber music, George Crumb in his new-age meditations, David Del Tredici in his Alice Pieces…Mainly I think he [i.e. Bernstein/sjk] was giving an exhortation to future generations.

Lerdahl might well have added his own orchestra piece, Chords, to the list. Bernstein was certainly aware of it.

Bernstein aligns himself with Stravinsky and Hindemith in viewing tonality as innate, atonality as an acquired taste, and the return to tonality as a return to music that resonates with the natural predilections of the brain.

Leonard Bernstein and Benny Goodman in rehearsal, c. 1945

There is an interesting question embedded in Bernstein’s third lecture. He never actually raised it, but it was certainly implied. In any event, it is a question well worth asking. Earlier in the lecture Bernstein had veered into poetry:

The poetic situation in the early twentieth century was remarkably similar to the musical one: there was the same feeling of surfeit with the Romantic excesses of such poets as Tennyson and Swinburne, to say nothing of the poets-laureate from Southey to Masefield. And so the ground was similarly prepared for the arrival of a poetic counterpart to Stravinsky- prepared not only by les enfants terribles de Paris, but by a solid international phalanx: in Russia, Mayakovsky; in Italy, Pirandello; in English, the crazy Sitwell family; and …America was exploding with new poets, unfettered love-children of Whitman and Poe. Look at them: Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Hart Crane, Maxwell Bodenheim, e.e. cummings…

The poets that he lists, with the obvious exception of Poe, had all followed the dictum of Ezra Pound, who wrote, in his 81st Canto, “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” These poets as well as the majority of 20th century poets writing in English after them, followed Pound’s advice. They discarded metre and rhyme in favour of free verse in which the only constraint was the line, a unit that could vary wildly within a single poem. e.e. cummings’ Old Age Sticks offers a good example:

old age sticks
up Keep

youth yanks them
cries No

youth laughs
old age

scolds Forbid
den Stop
n’t Don’t

&)youth goes
right on
owing old

Nought could be farther from Shakespeare’s:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past…

Bernstein suggested that the death of Schoenberg and Stravinsky cleared the way for composers to return to tonality. He also implied that early 20th century poetry broke with metricality (and rhyme) just as music had broken with tonality. But he never dropped the other shoe:

Why didn’t the deaths of T.S. Eliot (1965) and Ezra Pound (1972), who died just one year after Stravinsky, trigger a return to rhyme and metricality?

This is a good question. It deserves a stab at an answer. In a recent book, The Mental Life of Modernism (2020) [MLM], I argued that the sister arts of poetry, painting and music all shared a common fate. Poetry ceased to be metrical, music ceased to be tonal and painting ceased to be mimetic.

This is how Steve Pinker saw these changes in The Blank Slate (2002, pp. 409-10):

Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside…In poetry the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions.

Typically, cultural reasons have been proffered to explain these changes. In MLM I put another option on the table. Each of these art forms catered to pre-existing, hardwired predilections of the brain, predilections that artists felt were worn out by centuries of use.

Bernstein alluded to this when he said (see above): “there was the same feeling of surfeit with the Romantic excesses of such poets as Tennyson and Swinburne, to say nothing of the poets-laureate from Southey to Masefield.” These predilections formed the basis of what I called a natural aesthetic. When the natural aesthetic was jettisoned, artists needed to construct new constraints. Typically – though not always – these were not natural predilections. No wonder the emerging forms of music, painting and poetry demanded that audiences work at appreciating them.

English poetry for most of its history took advantage of the ability of fluent speakers to identify primary stress in words. For example, in a word like ”metre” speakers know intuitively that it is the first syllable that stands out. In a word like “metricality”, the outstanding syllable is the third from the end. Writing a metrical line in English meant a strategic location of the outstanding syllables in a line with respect to a given metrical pattern, say iambic pentameter. (A more explicit account of how this is done can be found in MLM.) This unconscious ability to locate the outstanding syllable in a polysyllabic word is why one can say that understanding an art form, in this instance metrical poetry, depends on something that English speakers do naturally. The same can be said for whether or not two words rhyme.

Armed with the notion of natural and “unnatural” constraints, we can see a clear difference between what happened in music and what happened in poetry. In music, the shift to atonality was a radical shift. It presented the brain, to borrow a Monty Python segue, with something completely different. And the brain, for its part, offered only a modicum of help. It had to erect an appreciation from the neurons up, as it were. As Stravinsky said, atonal music was “…truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side.”

Tristan Tsvara, author of Dada Manifesto, 1918 would have been ecstatic:

Art is a private affair, the artist produces it for himself, an intelligible work is the product of a journalist…

Tsvara was prescient. When poetry abandoned meter and rhyme, it also to a great extent abandoned intelligibility. It did so because it could. But it could not abandon grammaticality. For example, John Ashbery’s “These Lacustrine Cities” begins:

These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.

Ashbery’s meaning is incredibly elusive. Still the lines are grammatical. It would never occur to him or any writer, for that matter, including the author of Finnegan’s Wake, to write instead:

History with angry although, forgetful something into
loathing of out grew cities lacustrine these.

If Ashbery had written those lines, it would have been as a trick, challenging the reader to discover that the sentence was meant to be read backwards.

There is good reason for this semantic malleability beside syntactic intransigence. Poetry is the art form whose medium is natural language. In that regard, it has a very special place among the arts. August Schlegel (1801, 231) put it this way:

Thus the creative use of language, which, under certain conditions of form and organization, constitutes poetry [italics mine], accompanies and underlies any act of the creative imagination, no matter what the medium in which it is realized.

Schlegel argued that poetry was the highest form of art because its medium, natural language, was what all artists had to think in when creating their works, regardless of the genre. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the medium of poetry is something that cannot be jettisoned like tonality, because, unlike tonality, the ability to think and to express what we are thinking in sequences of sounds put together in a highly structured way by the rules of syntax is the essence of human nature. You cannot jettison it. All you can escape from are Schlegel’s “conditions of form and organization”, e.g., rhyme and metre. That is what happened with modern poetry. It simply jettisoned “certain conditions” of centuries past and shifted its attention to meaning, which gradually drifted into the world of the poet’s private imagination.

The abandonment of metre and rhyme was not a trivial matter. It transformed poetry into a visual art form. The e.e. cummings poem quoted above (old age sticks) is a perfect example. To enjoy that poem, you have to see the &, not pronounce it. And how is one to pronounce “growing” when the line break comes immediately after the “gr” in “gr/owing”?

When metre (and rhyme) determined line length, you could simply close your eyes and listen for the end. When they were abandoned, you had to see the poem on the page to know where the line ended. That abandonment also came with a shift in the direction of greater inaccessibility as poets became more private in their language. But this shift differed from the shift to atonality in that it was a choice. Poets did not have to become difficult to fathom. Atonal music did.

Ashbery, in an interview where he was asked about the accessibility of his poems, replied, “What they are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking.” It is no wonder that Ashbery was an admirer of Dadaism. Indeed, from this perspective much of modern poetry can be seen as the triumph of Dadaism.

I suspect that manifestations of Dadaism extend well beyond poetry. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is pure Dada. One of the most successful sitcoms of modern television, Seinfeld, a series based, as one of its episodes proclaims, on absolutely nothing, is another. The cartoon strip, Zippy, is yet another, non-sequiturs being its stock in trade. And then there is QAnon, the dark side of Dadaism.

The upshot of all this is that atonality was a giant step into the shadows of the private mind. Bernstein’s 20th century crisis was relieved when many young composers abandoned atonality and thereby resolved the tension between it and what the brain could process naturally. Rhyme and metre, on the other hand, were not at war with the natural aesthetic. They were simply conditions based on the output of a grammar, conditions with an aesthetic appeal. Poets could easily discard those conditions and still produce poems that catered to what the brain did naturally; that is, process English. On the other hand, composers who abandoned tonality turned their audiences into salmon swimming upstream.

So, the answer to Bernstein’s unasked question is this: Music came home. Poetry never left.

About the Author

Samuel Jay Keyser is Peter de Flores emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT. His most recent books include The Mental Life of Modernism, MIT Press, 2020 and Turning Turtle:  Memoir of a Man Who Would ‘Never Walk Again,’ 2020. The latter is gratis at He is editor in chief of Linguistic Inquiry, an MIT Press journal and its sister monograph series. He is a jazz trombonist with The Dixie Sticklers, a Dixieland band and with the avant-garde jazz orchestra, Aardvark, the oldest continuing jazz ensemble in the United States.


Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1976.

Hindemith, Paul 1961. A Composer’s World. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Jackendoff, Ray. Review of Bernstein The Unanswered Question in Language, Vol. 53, No. 4, and and and and and and pp. 883-894, Linguistic Society of America, 1977.

Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1996.

Peretz, Isabelle. “The nature of music from a biological perspective,” Cognition 100 pp. 1-32, 2006.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Books, New York, 2002.

Schlegel, August Wilhelm. 1801. Kritische Schriften und Briefe. Vol. II, Die Kunstlehre. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1963.

Stravinsky. Igor. 1956. Poetics of Music. New York: Vintage.

Taruskin, Richard. 2005. The Oxford History of Western Music (The Early 20th Century). New York: Oxford University Press.


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