Riot at the Ballet: What Atonal Music Could Reveal About Emotional Change Readiness
A spring evening, 1913 — Inside a dazzlingly new Parisian theater, high society traditionalists jeered and mocked the ballet performance onstage. They also traded-insults and argued across rows with the performance’s defenders. It escalated into an uproar that drowned out the orchestra and forced the choreographer to guide dancers from off stage.
In the ballet composer’s own words, he stood up and shouted over the din, “Go to hell!” before storming out of the theater.
That composer was Russian-born Igor Stravinsky. The ballet was the debut of Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring. While it’s still debated if a full-on riot broke out, most music historians agree there was at least a “considerable ruckus” made.
The crowd’s agitation stemmed from a variety of reasons. For one, anti-Russian sentiments ran high in pre-war Paris, just one year away. But the main cause is attributed to Stravinsky’s avant-garde music style.
A journalist at the time wrote:
[Rite of Spring]… contradicted every rule about what music should be. The sounds are often deliberately harsh…The music was cacophonously loud, assaulting the ears with thunderous percussion and shrieking brass. Rhythmically it was complex in a completely unprecedented way.”
Hear and see for yourself.
Theatergoers came to hear pretty light-hearted music; see puffy tutus and graceful leaps into the air. Instead, they got a self-sacrificing pagan Russia virgin and pigeon-toed dancers — not exactly everybody’s jam.
By daring to break with traditional western tonal scale and bringing atonality to the mainstream, Stravinsky’s The Rite was musically transformative. We most often hear nationality type most often heard in movie scores.
What the science of atonality can reveal a lot about a nimble mind like Stravinsky’s. It can also illuminate insights into the neural capacity needed for organizations and teams to undergo a transformative change for greater pivot-ability and resilience.
Background on Tonality & Atonality
Firstly, human brains are constantly jonesing for information that hits an individualized sweet spot of novelty and prediction. However, the brain prefers prediction more.  In fact, when the brain can predict outcomes it produces dopamine, the feel-good chemical. It’s why you can listen to your favorite song over and over.
From Bach to Biggie Smalls to BTS, most music is written on the tonal scale, also known as the C major scale. This scale has a tonal center — that is, it has a clear melody and harmony with progressive hierarchies leading to a resolution or a “home base.” Recognize this earworm below?
It’s melodic, harmonic, and progressively ascends the scale. The resolute note is the final “Do.” And even if a tune is unfamiliar, the brain can, with relatively good accuracy, predict the next note or measure. The brain loves this.
In contrast to tonal music, atonal music lacks this tonal center. There’s no clear melody or harmony. An atonal version of “Do-Re-Mi-Fah-So-La-Ti-Do” might have the notes completely out of order, sound like an out of tune piano, and progress up to “Do” — leaving the listener stranded miles away from “home base.”
To this end, the brain finds this maddening. In fact, atonal music is cognitively processed similar to a foreign language.
So how does this relate to nimbleness and change capacity? The answer lies in how the brain responds to atonal music.
Auditory cognitive scientists measure responses to atonal music via emotions (subconscious) and expressed feelings (conscious).
Although often used interchangeably, emotions and feelings are more like cousins. Emotions are physiological arousal states and measured via machines that capture heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation, etc. 
Feelings are conscious interpretations of emotions — filtered through experiences, biases, memories, known information, etc. associated with the emotional arousal state. They are assessed through conversations or questionnaires. 
Try this mini-experiment to gauge your feelings toward atonality
Below are two musical pieces for comparison. The first is a tonal piece and the second piece is atonal. I recommend listening for at least 15–20 seconds of each piece.
- Tonal music (La Campanella by Franz Liszt)
2. Atonal music (Suite for Piano, Opus 25 by Arnold Schoenberg). Side note: Schoenberg was the first western composer to write music entirely on the atonal scale.
Which four adjectives would you use to describe this piece: lively, confusing, interesting, structured, illogical, complicated, harmonious, agitated, fascinated, scary, pleasant, complex, or different?
Decoding Responses to Tonal & Atonal Music
In studies performed by auditory cognitive scientists, study participants most likely responded to atonal music with highly aroused emotional states. They also described the music as “unpleasant or an aversive experience.” In other words, these participants showed arousal states closely in nature to fear and timidity. 
If given my mini-experiment, these atonally-disinclined participants would more likely describe the tonal piano piece by Litzt as: harmonious, pleasant, or logical.
Compared to the atonal piano piece by Schoenberg, these participants would more likely have rated it as: confusing, unpleasant, illogical, agitating, or even scary.
If your descriptions of Schoenberg’s music were: intriguing, thought-provoking, fascinating, or complex, (but not likely pleasant or harmonious) — you might be more similar to the studies’ atonally-inclined participants.
Atonal music will make you think but rarely make you smile.
Similar to the atonally-disinclined study participants, the much smaller atonally-inclined subset responded to atonal music with high emotional arousal. Yet in contrast, they rated it with greater positive descriptions, showing a “perceptual curiosity” and a willingness to engage the music (associated with positive risk-taking). 
Compared to the atonally-disinclined group, these brains displayed greater openness to new experiences, novelty-seeking, and preference for complexity — or a higher threshold for uncertainty. Instead of fear, these brains received a level of neural reward. 
All of these traits are key components needed for greater curiosity, tolerance, ambiguity, and resilience. In other words, being agile and engaging in creative problem-solving.
An agile transformation is not simply adopting a mindset and practices, it is creating physical neural pathways that allow for greater uncertainty, exploration, and creativity.
To be clear, everyone starts at a different place in their journey but helpfully, neural plasticity — or the forming new neural connections or “bridges” to different parts of the brain — means everyone can grow, albeit at different paces. 
How Might Atonal Music Enhance Change Readiness Assessment?
Prior to an agile transformation, a readiness assessment is performed. Although it has qualitative and quantitative research elements, it most often focuses on external systems criteria (Are roles and responsibilities clear? How is continuous integration, etc.?).
Now, an enlightened change agent also gains a pulse on how workers feel about the current and future state. This has a major fallacy and the reason should be obvious: what people say does not always line-up with how they really feel inside. And this can be misleading when developing a right-fit approach.
Let’s say study results indicated 60% of an organization/team members demonstrate a low neural capacity for agility. How would this feedback factor into an approach? But what if emotional arousal states were added to the assessment? What could be illuminated?
Conversely, what if the majority were rather high in neural agility? What might one expect in terms of change resistance? Duration of the journey?
- Are transformations more successful if leadership is initially on the higher end in traits of openness to new experiences, novelty-seeking, and preference for complexity? Vice versa?
- What approaches and techniques might be tested and validated for effectiveness with different levels of emotional thresholds?
- What might be found if such a study were repeated in different scenarios 3, 6, 9, or 14 months later?
All Said and Done
It's not very practical to monitor an entire organization with EKG machines for emotional response assessment. Plus, there are a plethora of considerations for feasibility including ethics, unknown variables, and of course, financial. Yet, there’s a good case for greater neuro-scientific study considering the risk — and expense — of failure is very high — and also costly.
More research using atonality could be a key to unraveling learning and environmental considerations that make people more comfortable with uncertainty — and therefore, positive change.
Author note. The inspiration for this article was in re-discovering neural plasticity and wondering if becoming an agilist correlated to an increased appreciation (but not love) for abstract art — which, beforehand, I famously detested. I discovered a correlation between the appreciation it and atonal music
I’m April Garrido Wright. I’m a design-loving strategist and co-creative facilitator. I partner with responsible and forward-thinking leaders and owners to navigate complexities in a very real 21st century. Also, okay cellist.
To learn more about atonal music, I highly recommend Leonard Berstein’s engaging and digestible masterclass videos on Schoenberg.
Learn about music theory from trained a musician and jazz player, Adam Neely (Youtube channel).
My own study and practice of music theory plus:
 Iris Mencke, Diana Omigie, Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Elvira Brattico
(2019) | Atonal Music: Can Uncertainty Lead to Pleasure?
 Bryn Farnsworth, Ph.D, (2020) | How to Measure Emotions and Feelings (And the Difference Between Them)
 Alice M. Proverbio, Luigi Manfrin, Laura A. Arcari, Francesco De Benedetto, Martina Gazzola, Matteo Guardamagna, Valentina Lozano Nasi, Alberto Zani (2105) | Non-expert listeners show decreased heart rate and increased blood pressure (fear bradycardia) in response to atonal music
 Michael Rugnetta, Neuroplasticity.
 Prof. Lars Muckl (2018) | Theory of predictive brain as important as evolution.