Audiences consistently reject contemporary orchestral music. One reason given for this is that inaccessible form and syntax cause cognitive/perceptual difficulties for listeners. Another possible explanation is that contemporary music is impoverished in emotional or referential expression. Why do listeners say they reject atonal music? We compared their responses to tonal and serial works by the same two composers (Schoenberg and Webern). Listeners rejected the atonal works, found them less expressive along some affective dimensions but not others, and found them less rich in referential meanings. In fact, emotional and referential considerations determined preference at least as strongly as syntactic considerations. We discuss the modern music revolution in this light and consider the importance of nonsyntactic aesthetic dimensions in a psychology of music.