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Music Science

Why Dissonant Music Sounds 'Wrong' 183

Posted by Soulskill
from the because-right-is-boring dept.
ananyo writes "Many people dislike the clashing dissonances of modernist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg. But what's our problem with dissonance? There has long been thought to be a physiological reason why at least some kinds of dissonance sound jarring. Two tones close in frequency interfere to produce 'beating': what we hear is just a single tone rising and falling in loudness. If the difference in frequency is within a certain range, rapid beats create a rattling sound called roughness. An aversion to roughness has seemed consistent with the common dislike of intervals such as minor seconds. Yet when cognitive neuroscientist Marion Cousineau of the University of Montreal in Quebec and her colleagues asked amusic subjects (who cannot distinguish between different musical tones) to rate the pleasantness of a whole series of intervals, they showed no distinctions between any of the intervals but disliked beating as much as people with normal hearing. Instead the researchers propose that harmonicity is the key (abstract). Notes contain many overtones — frequencies that are whole-number multiples of the basic frequency in the note. For consonant 'pleasant sounding' intervals the overtones of the two notes tend to coincide as whole-number multiples, whereas for dissonant intervals this is no longer the case. The work suggests that harmonicity is more important than beating for dissonance aversion in normal hearers."
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Why Dissonant Music Sounds 'Wrong'

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @08:21PM (#41975685)

    Or it's just two and a half millenia of enculturation for the heirs of Greek culture, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Yet another attempt by folks who assume their music is the music that nature itself demands to find a universal in the brain. They should take a world music class first to realize that what sounds great to one group of people sounds shit to another. I think, for example, of Gamelan tunings which are not harmonious in the sense of the overtones lining up, but sure sound right to folks in Indonesia. Or some ancient Japanese gagaku.

    Why knock Schoenberg? It's pretty tame stuff anyway. Beautiful though.

    Also -- the equally tempered scale is not at all harmonious. It's based on a equal division of the octave, which does not occur in the harmonic series. Far from it. Play a fifth on a piano -- it will be off by a substantial margin instead of being a harmonious 3:2 ration. But, since we are used to it, it still sounds pretty great. (Although I do prefer meantone tunings for a lot of music, they just can't play in many keys) It's a problem that the ancients knew about though. We call the disjunction between a stack of 12 fifths (at which point we are back to the starting note) a pythagorean comma after all... (256:242 -- quite a significant difference) That to say, in some sort of pure natural harmoniousness, all Western music fails, because it involves playing multiple notes at the same time (since the 8th-9th century when theories began to develop, notably in the scholica enchiriadis). Nature doesn't like that, because the harmonic series will clash, even on the second best interval, the fifth (3:2)

    Note to all geeks -- tuning theory is very cool. It tracks the history of mathematics too.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @08:37PM (#41975809) Journal
    Schoenberg is relevant because he championed an opposing theory of dissonance. He claimed that people don't like dissonance because they are not used to it. If they heard it more, they would get used to it and like it (and thus, would also like his music).

    Over the last century, we have found he is right, as more and more music is dissonant enough to horribly irritate people of a hundred years ago (think heavy metal or a lot of Jazz music). As a result it is very likely people didn't like his music because it's boring (not because of dissonance), a theory I fully subscribe to.
  • by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @08:58PM (#41975985) Homepage Journal

    Actually, he was only about half right. Used tastefully and in moderation, dissonance can create mood in ways that consonance cannot easily match. As with nearly all of the musical techniques that he argued were historically dissonant (with the exception of basic polyphony), however, used in excess, it sounds like crap.

    IMO, the key to the tasteful use of dissonance is to make sure that the dissonance is not the focus. On the one extreme, you might have the subtle use of dissonant suspension and release in secondary parts of a complex orchestral work to set the mood. On the other extreme, you might have a highly dissonant piece of music used as the background sound behind a Civil War battle. In both cases, the listener is focused on something else, whether that something else is a traditional melodic line or a bunch of people shooting each other in a horrible, bloody battle.

    Incidentally, most folks (statistically) don't like heavy metal, highly dissonant jazz, bebop, etc. even to this day. Those genres and subgenres all serve a useful purpose when it comes to expanding the musical universe, and over time, those experimental ideas will get incorporated into more mainstream music in much more subtle and toned-down ways, but that doesn't mean that most people will ever find the experimental music itself enjoyable to listen to.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:04PM (#41976057)

    I'm a musician. What used to be considered dissonant in the past is acceptable and even pleasant today to our ears. Try playing jazz to a medieval musician. And there are musical systems based on notes not present in the Western 12-note scale (e.g. Indian music, the 'blues' note). Culture plays a big part in our perception of music. Also, a minor second by itself sounds bad, but in the presence of more notes it sounds wonderful, for example a major 7th chord. It's all in the context. So what's the point?

  • by TranquilVoid (2444228) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:09PM (#41976109)

    There's one part I find has some interest and the rest just sound like he's noodling idly while watching TV. My tracks aren't numbered properly so not sure which one it is. I wouldn't classify it as dissonant, though, not in the same sense as Schoenberg.

    Musical taste is a moving target. Dissonance has somewhat been absorbed into our collective musical vocabulary. Witness the 'stab-scene' music from Psycho. We accept it has it's place and the mood it invokes, however audiences literally walked out of the initial microtonal performances.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:39PM (#41976365)

    You are right that the fifth isn't too bad on the piano. However, there are still a few beats. Compare a major triad with with thirds being perfect. (meantone) That's night and day with an equally tempered triad. There are a lot of "wow-wow-wow" beats. When people sing unaccompanied in a straight tone, they tend to eliminate those beats even after hearing equal temperament their entire lives. The beats in all "tempered" tunings are necessary to spread the problem out, so there isn't a terrible clash between b# and c.

    You are right that most people can't hear it, Even most musicians only have pitch sensitivity of about 4-5 cents when it comes to a pitch played alone. (I hear a 2 cent fluctuation with just a melody line -- I do hear less than a cent if things are played simultaneously, because that's still a beat a second)

    As you say, the WTK was written to utilize what was then a very modern tuning system. (folks still debate which system is right - Werkmeister III is still my favorite, because it still has a lot of individual key character which some of the other smoother systems just don't, although it is probably not the one Bach himself used - especially since a practical musician didn't have the time to get out a monochord to get the math right when tuning -- they just knew how many beats to tune in on each interval) These replaced the meantone tunings of the late-medieval through 17th centuries.

    The 256:242 is pretty outdated. That was the approximation that theorists used in the past when doing monochord divisions. (And technically, that was the number they needed back in the meantone days in which the fifth wasn't the central issue. That's the "comma" that immediately comes to my mind, because I play a lot of Renaissance/early-Baroque music) I guess the official pythagorean comma is technically 531441:524288. That wasn't exactly practical on a monochord, because they didn't tend to have more than a couple thousand divisions. In modern terms, stacking 12 fifths starting on C makes the final b# a bit less than 25 cents higher than C which is a massive problem. I could calculate it, but don't have a log table or graphic calculator at hand without having to stand up...

    There are a lot of tuning comparison videos on Youtube. It's easier now with organ sampling software that allows for totally adjustable tunings.

  • Re:Sorry, but... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by b4dc0d3r (1268512) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:45PM (#41976411)

    There are a number of problems with the study as presented in the abstract. But, I bet you didn't study amusia and how studying them may tease out additional information. That part is new, at least to me. Too bad you chose the "heard it before" line instead of pointing out obvious failures of the abstract.

    People with amusia had no preference on the notes, and no "preference for harmonic over inharmonic tones". But they didn't appreciate the "beating" which is more predominant in dissonant notes.

    If these are all true, they should have had some sense of the beating in the dissonance, and been able to at least detect with accuracy greater than chance dissonant notes. Or maybe the idea that beating and dissonance are related is incorrect.

    And if there was no preference for harmonic tones with amusia, the study cannot exclude beating while including harmonicity as a foundation of musical preference. Being incapable of detecting both doesn't give any clue as to which is more important.

    They have fallen back on the old psycho-acoustical models since the study failed to show anything at all. I didn't read they study, but if it shows something else, I'd dismiss the person who wrote the abstract. If anything, I would have concluded that beating is not the foundation of dissonance.

    After all, a minor second can sound perfectly lovely as part of a Major 7th chord. I am thinking it has something to do with context, and I see no mention of context here. The entire reason for mentioning Schoenberg is that he wanted to take away the context that we relied on, and make us listen to the notes and the rhythms. A chord is no longer a chord, and it serves no function in a key, because there is no key. No leading tone, no major or minor, no context.

    Given a lack of context, some people can enjoy the dissonance of Schoenberg because they expect a lack of context. Given context, the same sounds can be very jarring, even when heard by people who appreciate Schoenberg.

    I agree it's horseshit, but at least I explained why.

  • by b4dc0d3r (1268512) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @10:15PM (#41976609)

    It's not about music taste. "Zero Tolerance For Silence" speaks for itself by the title alone. You can describe it as a direct rebuttal of John Cage's 4â33â - and possibly evidence that Cage did not suffer tinnitus, and Metheny to some extent does. But that last bit is only as an example of what one might learn.

    I have "Secret Story" (1992) among others. To know that he did this just 2 years later is just mind-boggling. When a coworker plays Pat Metheny, I don't know what song or album it is, or if he's a guest on someone else's recording, like with Anna Maria Jopek. I can instantly recognize the sound. Through headphones, which are tinny, or an iPhone played at low volume.

    "To me, it is a 2-D view of a world in which I am usually functioning in a more 3-D way. It is entirely flat music, and that was exactly what it was intended to be."

    He had a certain mindset when recording this, especially since it is overdubbed so he had to do multiple takes. If he heard something on the first track he didn't like, he would have overdubbed. But he didn't.

    To watch Metheny improvise is like watching a Rembrandt being painted, if you know about jazz. To some, maybe Van Gogh, to others maybe Dali is more appropriate. In the context of his career, this is like watching Rembrandt invent pointillism, and then abandon it. Even his characteristic sound isn't there. It is much like he decided to take something and dissect it, live, with everyone allowed to watch.

    Certainly it is not the same as Schoenberg, since Schoenberg allowed an element of restriction into his music. In fact, if you take Schoenberg's idea of the tone-row, this is completely the opposite. I have not analyzed it to be sure, but I don't sense the rigor of that limiting factor.

    Pat Metheny was playing to something he heard, or felt, as an affront to silence. You can appreciate it for what it is, without musical taste being involved. As a statement against silence, it certainly doesn't specify what it is for

What good is a ticket to the good life, if you can't find the entrance?