woman mountain yoga

Image by Julia Caesar

Music is a tool that helps us understand our emotional existence, both by reflecting on our own emotions and helping us resolve conflicting or dissonant emotions. People often say “let life be like music.” What is this mean? Life is often a series of ups and downs—it's a constant wave. While little is for certain, you can be sure that some days it will feel like the world is working against you and other days it will feel like the world is working with you. These struggles and successes occur everyday. We’ll make sense herein of consonance and dissonance in music and you’ll find that if life is truly like music then dissonance is as important to good music as harmony.

The jarring (dissonant) sound of a crying baby

Whether you recognized it or not, you’ve experienced dissonant sounds in your life. For example, the sound of a baby crying or the sound of a person screaming are dissonant sounds. These sounds are both annoying and alarming to us as listeners. There is an evolutionary basis for this: when babies cry or adults yell, the vocal tract contracts the resulting sound is rough and the components of that sound are quite close together and interfere with each other. It is no coincidence that these sounds quickly grab our attention and we seek to minimize them. However, if dissonant sounds are so annoying to us, then why would we possibly seek to include these sounds in music.

Music itself can be thought of as human emotional expression, which carries with it certain physical properties (i.e., sound waves). Among the properties of music are ideas of consonance and dissonance. Over the years dating all the way back to the Pythagoreans (500 B.C.E.), researchers have had a difficulty explaining the phenomenon of a person’s ability to judge almost instinctively whether a sound is consonant or dissonant. In general, "consonance" refers to the harmonious sound and stimulating tones in music, which people describe as beautiful, pleasant, and smooth. On the contrary, "dissonance" refers to stimulating sound that as a rough quality, which people describe as unpleasant and inharmonious.

Consonance and dissonance in music reflects the smoothness and roughness we experience in our emotional life.

The pleasant (consonant) sound of the major triad

Western music theory has been quite obsessed with understanding human perception of consonance and dissonance. Researchers have looked at this issue from the context of aesthetics, mathematics, physics, neurology, psychology, and other disciplines. And despite the abundance of studies, the understanding of consonance and dissonance chords in music is still incomplete.

For the sake of simplicity and example, imagine you are trying on a new outfit in the mirror. If the outfit you try on clashes visually, you would say it exhibits dissonance. If the outfit you try on matches visually, you would say that it exhibits consonance. Therefore, think of dissonance as clashing and consonance as smoothness in relation to music.

music and dissonance

If you have studied music, you are very familiar with triads. In music, a triad is a set of three notes that can be stacked in thirds. A triad is a chord composed of three notes consisting of a root together with a third and fifth above it. There are four types of triads classified by their qualities including: the major triad, the minor triad, the augmented triad, and the diminished triad. Without getting too far into music theory, the importance of this related to consonance and dissonance is that people universally consider the major triad and the minor triad as consonant chords and the augmented triad and the diminished triad as dissonant chords. Therefore, using these simple chords, psychologists can look into a person’s perception of consonance and dissonance and determine whether a chord's acoustical characteristics alone create a person's sense of pleasantness or unpleasantness, or on the other hand whether it actually depends in large part on the musical context surrounding the chords.

This is exactly what researchers at the University of Sheffield sought to uncover (Arthurs & Timmers, 2015). Arthurs and Timmers investigated the influence of musical context, and in particular the influence of harmonic function, on a listener's perception of consonance and dissonance of these fundamental chords. Given that dissonant chords are believed to be rough sounds that are inherently bad and unpleasant to the Western ear, the big question is why would anyone include them in their music?

Your ear for consonance depends on dissonance

There are plenty of examples today of musical traditions that are rich in both roughness and dissonance. Therefore, the suggestion that humans have innate preferences for consonance over dissonance cannot be 100% true. Think simply of many popular rock bands: rock bands deliberately introduce roughness and dissonance into their music that are thoroughly enjoyed by rock music fans. It’s hard to imagine that music with dissonance features can be considered as violating some human natural law or universally sound bad.

When you think of chords played on a piano, two notes played together sound rough if their particular pitches overlap. It sounds as if these notes are fighting each other. It is possible that the source of this distance comes from our ears’ limitations in perceiving sound. Our ears are made up of individual hair cells, which the ears’ nerves pulse in time with the peaks and valleys of sound waves; therefore, the waves for consonant sounds tend to be smooth and regular, while dissonant sounds produce jagged waves. The components of jagged waves are quite close together, which is annoying for our brains.

So what did Arthur & Timmer (2015) find out about the influence of musical context in our perception of consonance and dissonance? When testing the four types of triads within a musical context, Arthur & Timmer found that people are in fact influenced by the musical context of the perceived consonance and dissonance (Arthur & Timmer, 2015, p. 12). They further confirmed the contradictory character of consonance and dissonance, it’s fluidity and rigidity, made it possible for sounds of dissonance in some instances to induce pleasantness in the listener. For example, the way in which a dissonant music chord is resolved in the real listening experience may actually add greater beauty and elegance to a musical work. Thus, consonant sounds which resolve dissonant chords are experienced as more beautiful and complete.

rules of music culture

Image by Giu Vicente.

Put simpler

As you can see, life can be a lot like music. Many believe that you cannot experience success without experiencing failure. Many believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many believe that you cannot experience true love without experiencing loss. This is the way our brains understand the world, not as black or white, or even grey. But rather as relative ups and downs. And it is the riding of these waves that makes life fulfilling. Music, in order to be an honest emotional expression of the human condition, must have both consonant chords and dissonant chords. And perhaps the most gratifying and beautiful aspects of both life and music are the points when something rough and clashing becomes resolved into something smooth and pleasant. When life is tough, remind yourself:

Let life be like music: in order to experience real life gratification, you must experience momentary dissonance Tweet: Let life be like music: in order to experience real life gratification, you must experience momentary dissonanceShare this

-Clay for SndControl-

See Arthurs, Y. & Timmers, R. (2015). On the fluidity of consonance and dissonance: The influence of musical context. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 1-14.

For question or comments, email me at clay@sndcontrol.com.