Charles Ives, often labeled the first “great” American composer, said that “the human ear (not one but all) will learn to digest and handle sounds, the more they are heard and then understood.” He was talking about how music that listeners might initially find repelling has the potential to become a source of pleasure, a phenomenon resulting from a process he called “ear-stretching.”
Working primarly in the early twentieth century, Ives was a rebel of sorts, and composing music with such rhythmic complexity and unrelenting dissonance that many musicians considered them impossible to perform. But his progressive sound wasn’t due to divine inspiration or a crystal ball. In his childhood, his dad would teach him”ear-stretching” exercices, like playing “Swanee River” in the key of C while singing in E-flat. As time went on, the ear-stretching exercices served a purpose beyond his own edification, eventually resulting in compositions that anticipated many of the twentieth-century muscal experiments in quarter-tone, aleatoric music, and tone clusters.
But Ives didn’t just foreshadow future musical developments. Despite coming off like a poetic device to critique the classsical establishment that shunned his work, his ear-stretching concept would later find common ground with the neurological community, one that not only understood the fluidity of taste but also proved how physical the process of music listening can be.
— Marvin Lin, Kid A