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Music Science

Why Dissonant Music Sounds 'Wrong' 183

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

    in b4 Fourier

    • by dunng808 ( 448849 ) <> on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @08:19PM (#41975659) Journal

      Pythagoras. I first learned this lesson from a book by Harry Parth, but this works: []

      • by dunng808 ( 448849 ) <> on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @08:21PM (#41975687) Journal

        typo, sorry, that is Harry Partch []

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          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.

          • I couldn't have said it better myself. And his paintings were also utter dogshit. But so were the works of many other modern and post-modern artists of his time and to follow. Such a pity that the Nazi's had to stick their nose into it and label it "degenerate art". Now I can't point at the emperor's new clothes and mock without being labeled a f*cking Nazi.

            • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

              Such a pity that the Nazi's

              Nazi here, get rid of that fucking apostrophe. It makes you look like a moron.

          • I am a tritonus personality. Tritonus sounds right to me. Music also has to be expressive. Liszt does it for me [], not Schonberg. Brotzmann [] and Stockhausen [].
          • Actually Gorillas have a very tiny penis for their body size (~1.5 inches long) so as far as being forcibly fucked in the ass by an animal goes they certainly wouldn't be the worst possible option there.
            • I still think i'd rather be punched in the back of the head.
            • Actually Gorillas have a very tiny penis for their body size (~1.5 inches long) so as far as being forcibly fucked in the ass by an animal goes they certainly wouldn't be the worst possible option there.

              I may be wrong. I am too afraid to search for it at work. But I believe humans have the largest for body size among apes.

          • Atonal music is pretty much like nonfigurative art where the painter wants you to pay attention to, say, colours or shapes or whatever instead of what it is supposed to represent.
          • I'd mod this up if I could. It's not what you're doing, it's how you're doing it. Schoenberg is easy to pick on but something like Anton Webern is remarkably expressive and has wider appeal. I just saw some footage of a concert collaboration between Aphex Twin and Penderecki, it was remarkably high budget, very, very atonal, and it looks like the audience knew what they were going to see.

          • People don't like Arnold Schoenberg's "music" because it's just utter dogshit.

            You could, and "people" do, replace "Arnold Schoenberg" with nearly any composer, music genre, performing soloist or group. You need to understand the difference between your personal taste and that of others. De gustibus non disputandam.
            What is not up for debate is whether Schoenberg was a brilliant and groundbreaking composer. As were, say, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Wagner, Tschaikowsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, *Bach,.. . And, for that matter, T. Monk, M. Jagger, E. Hagen, and J. Cash, to pic

      • Actually we had to abandon Pythagoras hundreds of years ago, because 'pure' consonance sounds bizarre to our modern ears: []

        Modern chords+chromaticism that we take for granted did not exist before we had the mathematics and engineering to develop temperament, which, if you've ever tuned a piano before, you know introduces specific patterns of beats between intervals and offsets the pure ratios to allow for key changes, etc etc.

        Off topic, likewise foreign scales a

  • 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 jbengt ( 874751 )
      The lower harmonics, like the interval of a fifth (1/2 of the 3rd harmonic), or a third (1/4 of the fifth harmonic) are actually quite close to the equal tempered scale approximations - closer than most can hear, and definitely closer than most can sing. In fact, vibrato may change the pitch more than it would be off. The higher harmonics are definitely off, though, e.g. The 11th harmonic is about halfway between two notes on the piano.
      As you probably know, the Well Tempered Clavier is not equal tempered,
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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

      • by u38cg ( 607297 )
        Close is relative. A major third on in equal temperament beats horrible and as a violin player I hate it. One of my dreams is to come up with an intelligent tempering model system for digital pianos that will naturally adjust temperament as you play.
    • I, too, read the book "An Imaginary Tale - (sqrt(-1))". You have piano mistaken for guitar -- guitar is equally tempered; piano is tampered to make the intervals integer ratios.
      • Guitar and piano are usually both equal tempered, though pianos typically have a slightly stretched octave to compensate for the strings having harmonics that aren't exact integer multiples of the fundamental. (In other words, it's done to compensate for the physical limitations of the instrument, rather than to compensate for the mathematical limitations of the tuning system.)

        One can, of course, tune a piano to just intonation. (My piano is currently tuned that way, partly because I wanted to hear what

  • The summary do not answers the question ask by it's title, it addresses the following question: What are dissonant sounds ?
    And by the way the title of the cited paper is

    The basis of musical consonance as revealed by congenital amusia


  • It's all associations. Associations with nature, associations from culture, associations we build from other music, etc. It's how our brain works, and how it's keyed to react to environmental events.

    We can like fast driving beats because they match our excitement we've felt at other things. We can like slower rhythms for their likeness to intelligible patters we recognize in our lives. In general, the music just has to be present, and we'll generate the associations.

    Dissonance just tends in our environm

  • What if you *like* Schoenberg?

    • Re:But... (Score:4, Insightful)

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

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

    • by treeves ( 963993 )

      He's not one of my favorite composers, but all composers use dissonance to some degree, and I like some who use a quite a bit of it: Prokofiev, Wagner, Stravinsky, Ligeti, et al.

      • Yes, exactly. Where would Kubrick have been without Ligeti? :-) (Or Disney without Prokofiev and Stravinsky.)

        The point I'm sidling up to is that although TFM may have identified some of the reasons why some people find dissonant music unpleasant, it doesn't explain at all why so many of us seek it out.

        • Speaking of Schoenberg, try Blood Sweat and Tears' cover to the Stones "Sympathy for the Devil". It's not exactly 12 tone, but pretty close for jazz.

    • Speaking of Schoenberg, I was listening to a John Adams [] concert the other night. He was conducting a performance of Harmonielehre. I knew nothing about it, other than that it was composed in the mid-80s. Ten seconds into it, I was getting into it more and more, and realized that the entire thing was the background soundtrack to Civilization 4. Because I have heard it more than a thousand times just playing the game, I knew the music quite well subconsciously and thereby enjoying the music probably much more
  • I studied this back in the '80s when I was majoring in Applied Music. Among other things we studied regarding harmonic intervals, we learned things like why a minor chord sounds "minor" as opposed to a major chord. It all has to do with how the frequencies of the notes (and harmonics therein) work with each other. This isn't news, though it is at least interesting.
    • 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.

      • 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.

        Unless the dissonant notes were played using pure tones and intervals wider than auditory filters, in which case dissonance can exist without beating, no?. I'm sure other methods might have be used as well to tease them apart, this is just what I'm thinking of without having immediate access to the article.

        Or maybe the idea that beating and dissonance are related is incorrect.[...] if there was no preference for harmonic tones with amusia, the study cannot exclude beating while including harmonicity as a foundation of musical preference [...] If anything, I would have concluded that beating is not the foundation of dissonance.

        I'm a little confused by your objections here. The authors' conclusion is exactly that the idea that beating and dissonance are (perceptually) related is incorrect, as you just stated. The study shows no

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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 TexVex ( 669445 )
      I just listened to some Schoenberg stuff out of curiosity. It sounded to me like an orchestra out of tune, except every now and then there would be a nice harmonious moment. I think the general horribleness of it made the harmonious moments nicer.

      But if you think about it, it's like being in an elevator full of farts and occasionally getting a whiff of perfume.

      I'm sure it's an acquired taste.
  • Total nonsense. Our current musical scale is a human creation and has nothing to do with how sound works. "Dissonance" is simply 2 notes combined that the listener is not used to. What was considered dissonant before we could create whole tones with a bow? Have you ever heard tribal music where the players have no way of tuning their instruments to each other? It's about as "dissonant" to your average city folk as you can get, but the villagers love it because they're used to it. A very long time ago, befor
    • by u38cg ( 607297 )
      I'm afraid you're quite a long way off base both in your analysis of how musical sounds are constructed and of how we culturally construct musical experience. A Western just temperament major scale has a very simple mathematical basis, and musical systems around the world can be derived from this, in more or less complex forms, but it is in no sense arbitrary. And this construction has been very well understood for a very, very long time, before the violence that is equal temperament was introduced.
  • Something is missing in the summary, the 'yet' does not reveal a disagreement as the amusical listeners disliked the same intervals.

    It should be noted that it's traditionally considered the ratio of the frequencies that causes dissonance, not the closeness of the notes. To be harmonious two notes need to have frequencies that come into sync quickly. So a sixth (5:3) is is actually less harmonious than the closer fifth (3:2).

    It would be interesting to check the numbers from their theory on the frequencies

    • by jbengt ( 874751 )
      There is a difference between discordance and dissonance, musically. The way you, and TFS, and TFA, and most people (not necessarily the paper, haven't read it) use the word dissonance would be more appropriately be called discordance, according to my harmony prof. Dissonance is an important part of harmony, without it, music would have no tension, no resolution, and would be more just a series of sounds, than music. A lot of that is learned, IMO. The perception of diiscordance, however, I believe is in
      • So are you defining dissonance as the musical use of discordance within a piece? Insofar as discordance is natural they would be very linked but I agree a lot is learned. The authentic V-I cadence is almost naturally derived but there are plenty of cadences used in different styles and times, like IV-I, that give resolution almost by convention.

  • it has a good beat, and it's easy to dance to (not).
  • by epp_b ( 944299 ) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:41PM (#41976383)

    Various tonalities are associated with the specific emotions that we find either enjoyable or displeasureable, and music provokes these emotions involuntarily.

    As described in the summary, clashing tones create a vibration or beating (this is empirically known by anyone who tunes musical instruments by ear) and cause a sense of disresolution and unrest.

    Yeah, a lot of modern music is just random, manufactured crap, but truely talented artists select their musical tones, both deliberately and subconsciously, to tie in very closely with the lyrics (if applicable) and the emotions they intent to provoke.

  • Consonance (Score:3, Informative)

    by nbsr ( 2343058 ) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @09:46PM (#41976421)

    It's perhaps not obvious but there is no such thing as perfect consonance in music:

    - Tone C3 is an exact second harmonic of C2 and a fourth harmonic of C1. That's why the sound so nice together.

    - Tone G2 is a third harmonic of C1, but (surprise) not an exact one. That's because if you take 13 third harmonics (C G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F C') you are supposed to arrive at the same tone. But you don't, there is a slight frequency offset. In practice, this offset is distributed among all 13 intervals so we are generally unable to notice it.

    - The fifth harmonic tone (C1 -> E3') is also inexact. It is fairly close to the sound (here E) obtained from the scale above but again there is a slight frequency offset.

    - The sixth harmonic (C1 -> G3) is 2*3 times the fundamental frequency, so is as (in)exact as the third harmonic.

    - The seventh harmonic (C1 -> ~A#3, noticeably lower) is not on the (twelve tone) scale but it still sounds nice.

    - The eight harmonic is exact (2*2*2, C1 -> C4). And so on...

    The twelve tone scale is a rather clever invention, it manages to approximate a rather large number of harmonics with a small number of tones. But it is still only an approximation - a perfect consonance can only be obtained for octaves.

    • by ChristW ( 18232 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @03:41AM (#41978047) Homepage

      Yes, there _is_ such a thing as perfect consonance in music, but _not_ on an instrument with restricted frequency generation!

      If you sing, or play a flute, or a violin, you're able to generate a much larger range of frequencies than when you play a piano. That way, you can, and should, create 'perfect consonance'. Note that this is a lot harder than 'hitting the right key on the piano'! And if you get it wrong, the beatings get annoying very quickly.

      I've been told that 'the only way to get two flautists to play together nicely is to shoot one of them'.

  • Many predators see their prey based on movement, like cats. Perhaps dissonance in hearing is some evolutionary equivalent to this. The beating of wings, the trampling of feet, the clucking of the tongue of angry wives...

  • by OldSport ( 2677879 ) on Tuesday November 13, 2012 @10:03PM (#41976523)

    It's funny, because I've always thought of Satie's use of the occasional dissonant notes as what makes the music "human". Check his Danses de Travers ( at 0:38, 0:52, 1:02, and so on and so forth... the dissonant elements are what breathe real life into an already impeccably beautiful piece.

    (Disclaimer: I know nothing of music theory but know a lot of music.)

  • in the Theory of Harmony by (guess who)... Arnold Schoenberg, before he started experimenting with atonal composition.

    I don't think it was a particularly new idea, even then.

    • in the Theory of Harmony by (guess who)... Arnold Schoenberg, before he started experimenting with atonal composition.

      I don't think it was a particularly new idea, even then.

      I would be surprised if Helmholtz didn't mention it in his 1863 book On The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. I don't have my copy handy right now, so I can't check for sure.

  • by jandersen ( 462034 ) on Wednesday November 14, 2012 @06:18AM (#41978547)

    As I understand it (from 'reading' the article very quickly), they are inching closer to knowing (scientifically, that is) *what* it is with unpleasant sounds that is unpleasant, not really why that is the case.

    My best guess so far, having done several seconds of research into the matter, is that these sounds are commonly associated with 'alarm sounds' - things breaking, distress calls etc. Things that should make you afraid and run away from danger.

    Harmonious sounds normally require things like voice control - they require a more relaxed environment, thus they are learned to be soothing.

  • This article is not claiming to know anything about consonance, if anything it's opening up the field to more questions.

    It's comparing musical and amusical listeners to debunk the notion that constructive/destructive interference patterns (beats) are how we neurologically perceive consonance and dissonance. Nothing more. It's making no value judgements as to what consonance or dissonance is. If anything it goes out of its way to demonstrate how complex it is to make judgements regarding that. As others h

  • The article features Diana Deutsch. I have her book from 1982, The Psychology of Music, and it has much deeper explanations, though they can be found in other sources too.

    The fundamental idea here is the critical band, related to the spectral resolution limit of human hearing. Basically, if two tones are close enough, they are perceived as equal, and far enough, they are separate. However, there is a grey area where the ear cannot decide if the tones are the same or different. The usual explanation for d

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