What is it about?

The topic of the publication is the perception of consonance (the relative attractiveness of sound combinations) in music, an age-old enigma that has been investigated since the days of Pythagoras in ancient Greece and which keeps baffling scholars to this day. In addition to disputes over its acoustic/cultural origins, also the very definition of consonance is notoriously problematic. The term itself means different things to different scholars ranging from the most commonly associated definition of ‘pleasantness’ to concepts like ‘preference’, ‘smoothness’, ‘clearness’, ‘purity’, ‘tension’, and ‘harmoniousness’. In this study we asked participants to rate musical chords (combinations of two or more musical pitches) on the most used concepts to see how much these key concepts overlap. The results show that the amount of which musical consonance overlaps with ‘pleasantness’ is in fact very much dependent on how frequently we hear certain sound combinations in our everyday experiences with music, and also on the listeners’ musical expertise. Also, the findings suggest that while consonance is not automatically linked to the concepts of ‘pleasantness’ and ‘preference’, the concept of ‘tension’ captures the nature of consonance in chords ranging from very familiar to completely unfamiliar for both musicians and non-musicians. This makes ‘tension’ the most usable concept to denote consonance perception universally.

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Why is it important?

The terminology that has been used for centuries to denote consonance perception has been inaccurate and the underlying cause for a lot of the confusion and mystery shrouding the topic. Most music scholars equate consonance with ‘pleasantness’ automatically, but the results demonstrate that this is a serious confound and an oversimplification. The concept of ‘tension’ on the other hand is most useful to denote the perception of consonance, as these two concepts correlated highly regardless of how familiar the musical chords are or how much musical training the listeners have. Having resolved this confusion around the terminology surrounding consonance will no doubt prove useful for all future studies investigating its perception, and this new knowledge can be further harnessed to improve cochlear implant technology to make music listening as enjoyable as possible for listeners with impaired hearing.

Perspectives

The terminology that has been used for centuries to denote consonance perception has been inaccurate and the underlying cause for a lot of the confusion and mystery shrouding the topic. Most music scholars equate consonance with ‘pleasantness’ automatically, but the results demonstrate that this is a serious confound and an oversimplification. The concept of ‘tension’ on the other hand is most useful to denote the perception of consonance, as these two concepts correlated highly regardless of how familiar the musical chords are or how much musical training the listeners have. Having resolved this confusion around the terminology surrounding consonance will no doubt prove useful for all future studies investigating its perception, and this new knowledge can be further harnessed to improve cochlear implant technology to make music listening as enjoyable as possible for listeners with impaired hearing.

Dr Imre Lahdelma
Durham University

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This page is a summary of: Cultural familiarity and musical expertise impact the pleasantness of consonance/dissonance but not its perceived tension, Scientific Reports, May 2020, Springer Science + Business Media, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-65615-8.
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