Alex Ross brings my attention to a recent letter in Science:
“…Watanabe and Sato [Behav. Processes 47, 1 (1999)] have shown that Java sparrows can discriminate between Bach’s French Suite no. 5 in G minor and Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano opus 25. The birds were also able to generalize new music by Bach (Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major) and Schoenberg (Five Orchestra Pieces, Opus 16) and artists in similar categories, i.e., Vivaldi and Elliott Carter. In these experiments, music by Bach and Vivaldi was considered classical music, while the music of Schoenberg and Carter was considered modern music. Watanabe and Nemoto [Behav. Processes 43, 2 (1998)] have also shown that, given the option of three perches producing either silence, classical, or modern music, the Java sparrows preferred Bach to Schoenberg and Vivaldi to Carter. These results indicate that Java sparrows or songbirds prefer classical to modern music, or perhaps just more harmonious to dissonant sounds. Additionally, the sparrows chose music they ‘liked’ (e.g., Bach) over silence or music they ‘disliked’ (e.g., Schoenberg).”
My grandmother used to refer to Schoenberg as “tummy-ache music”. Sparrows would agree with her critical assessment. On a related note, if you’re interested in modern music, be sure to check out The Rest Is Noise, a rollicking cultural tour that helps explain why, exactly, composers in the 20th century felt the need to create such a weird conglomeration of sounds.