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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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  • Re:But... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:04PM (#41976059) Journal

    The first step towards getting better is admitting you have a problem.

  • by Abreu (173023) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @10:30PM (#41976713)

    Most heavy metal is regular chords and melodies, played fast and hard on distorted guitars, with thrumming bass lines and staccato drums.

    No dissonances there, strictly speaking.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @10:32PM (#41976725)

    I have to disagree. People don't like Arnold Schoenberg's "music" because it's just utter dogshit. Dissonance is coincidental.

    Saying people don't like Arnold Schoenberg's "music" is disliked because its dissonant, is like saying being fucked up the ass by a gorilla then punched in the back of the head is disliked because people don't like being punched in the back of the head.

  • by Pseudonym (62607) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @11:13PM (#41976907)

    Strangely enough, I'm reading Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony right now. I recommend the opening chapter to everyone interested in this topic, because it's one of the most well-written rants in all of music theory.

    What Schoenberg opposed was the idea, which he claimed to be prevalent among music theorists in the late 19th and early 20th century, that we could discover "laws of beauty" which could be applied to make beautiful art. Schoenberg argued that when you propose "rules" of making art (be it writing, drawing or music composition), those "rules" tend to be mostly exceptions. Moreover, these "rules" are almost always proposed by theorists, not art creators.

    Now he may have been right about this view being common in the music theory community at the time. Today, we know better.

    For a start, we now understand the role of culture.

    We can only imagine what Palestrina sounded like to people brought up on Gregorian chant. Today, it still sounds beautiful, but it also sounds very old. We can't imagine what was in the minds of the people who rioted at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Hell, most of us can't even imagine what the big deal was about Elvis Presley! Why did anyone think that old music was shocking and an affront to civilization?

    And, of course, music theorists discovered traditions other than the European one, which sound odd to us, but normal to someone brought up in India or China or Indonesia or wherever the music comes from.

    Secondly, we now understand that music theory, and the "rules" therein, are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are a language for understanding and talking about music in the tradition of the European common practice era.

    In that sense, it's like category theory in mathematics or design patterns in software engineering. they're not recipes on how to write programs or do maths, they are a vocabulary for understanding, reasoning about and talking about programs or mathematical structure.

    Schoenberg was a pioneer. Like all pioneers, he was wrong about quite a lot. But he did have a very good point to make, which in the modern context is moot.

    Incidentally, in his book on counterpoint, Schoenberg also railed against modal tonality, judging it to be a poor imitation of the modern major and minor keys. If you haven't yet had your recommended daily intake of irony, you're welcome.

  • by DriedClexler (814907) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @02:16AM (#41977717)

    It probably requires some getting used to, stretching the limits of what you listen to, to appreciate it.

    Alternatively, you could just listen to stuff you like. It seems kind of backwards to go through effort just to make yourself like something, and then spend the time liking it with your new preferences?

    If you're going to modify your preferences at all, why not modify them in a way that's actually useful, like making chores more enjoyable or something.

    What would you think of someone who played World of Warcraft and decided he didn't like it, but make sure to play to level 20 anyway, just to make sure he got the full experience? Same idea.

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