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Dissonant tones sound fine to people not raised on Western music (arstechnica.com)
246 points by shawndumas on July 16, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Most of these chords aren't truly dissonant. They're very rare in pre-romantic classical music, but in jazz/pop theory they're considered basic triads with added colour notes, not weird exotic sounds from musical hell.

Most people will have grown up hearing sequences that use mostly 7ths and/or 9ths, and won't think of them as exotic or strange at all.

The ones that are dissonant - like the Dom 7#11, and some of the clusters - fall later down the preference list, just as you'd expect them to.

The simplest dissonant chords are the basic augmented and diminished triads, and the authors didn't include them in the tests - which is a bizarre and curious omission.

> They're very rare in pre-romantic classical music...

Not true. Some styles of classical music employ dissonance in a prominent way - from late 14th century Ars Subtilior, through the pre-baroque stylus fantasticus and the bold chromaticism of Gesualdo, Frescobaldi, de Macke and others, and to the late baroque with Bach, Vivaldi, Zelenka, Rebel and others.

In traditional harmony something is considered "dissonant" if it's not part of the root triad in root inversion. All such chords are unstable, the theory goes, and must eventually resolve to some tonic chord. Classical harmony sticks almost exclusively to diatonic intervals, triads, and sevenths, and uses inversions and juxtaposition of chords (in sequence, via 'suspension', and so on) to provide "dissonance".

This isn't the kind of dissonant the OP is talking about. I'd be very surprised if you can come up with a clashing jumble like a Dom7#11 in Bach, even as a suspension or pedal. Cluster chords in classical music are almost unheard of.

"Traditional harmony" evolved after the Medieval and Renaissance music the parent post is referring to, which can sound rather radical by Classical Era standards, by which time the diatonic harmony you speak of dominated professionally composed music. I'm not am expert, but I understand Western folk music traditions remained pretty funky.

Not really. Western folk music is usually harmonically conservative. As for art music, the codification of classical harmony began with Renaissance theorists and the standard codifications are based on that lineage of thought. Counter-reformation composers like Palestrina were considered the most harmonically "perfect". The few true weirdos like Gesualdo were considered, well, really weird and thus excluded from common practice. Finally, most of the guys mentioned by the previous poster are actually Baroque.

I don't think even Gesualdo used chord clusters. IIRC it was his chromatic sense of tonality that was shocking, not his choice of chords.

You guys aren't disagreeing exactly. acjohnson55 mentioned "Medieval and Renaissance" but you're just talking about the Renaissance, and the Medieval-to-Renaissance transition is the interesting part (I think acjohnson55 just got the timing a bit wrong). The major third as a consonant interval became accepted in the early Renaissance. Most medieval composers considered thirds to be dissonant, which makes medieval music sound strange to modern listeners because things don't resolve as we expect them to, with phrases often ending on open fourths or fifths instead of triads (though to be fair, their third was somewhat different than ours because of changes in temperament over time).

Indeed I find of their two examples the "consonant harmony" is a bit dull and the "dissonant harmony" sounds like it might be from something more interesting like the Große Fuge, one of my favourites and probably more dissonant than their example. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEZXjW_s0Qs&feature=youtu.be...

Quote from the arstechnica article:

> This suggests that preference for consonance over dissonance isn’t baked into universal human auditory processing, but is rather something we develop by being exposed to certain kinds of frequency relationships in the music that we hear.

No, that is not a conclusion that can be drawn from the experiment and not the conclusion the paper draws.

Quote from the paper:

> The results indicate that consonance preferences can be absent in cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music [...]

From what I understand the experiment shows that there are peoples that have not developed harmony until now. They make music, but they only play notes in a sequence never simultaneously. This is not surprising, western music developed real harmony only in the modern era, music of the middle ages was mostly melodic.

That they have no harmony does not mean that preference for consonance over dissonance isn’t baked into universal human auditory processing because if they would develop harmony they might end up with the same preferences we have because we share the same human auditory processing.

I agree with your your feelings about the article.

I am a musician and I have been interested in music theory since I was a teenager, so I have almost always read writing about this topic. In my experience, it seems like, generally, the people who write about and study musicology are very reluctant to take the position that the music of some cultures can be more primitive than others, but to me it seems to explain a lot of the apparently paradoxical aspects of what we regard as consonance and dissonance.

> That they have no harmony does not mean that preference for consonance over dissonance isn’t baked into universal human auditory processing because if they would develop harmony they might end up with the same preferences we have because we share the same human auditory processing.

Or they might develop the same preferences because they're exposed to the same stimuli. Or they might not develop the same preferences at all. Or they might prefer alternation between both.

The paper -- its experiment -- doesn't really tell us.

It would seem that proof of the assertion in question would require finding people with a notion of musical harmony that is genuinely dissonant.

>cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music

This doesn't translate to "they don't have harmony". Tons of those cultures do have harmony AND it's different than the traditional western harmony.

Although the article talks about pitch ratios, there's no evidence that the human brain contains any hardware for pitch ratio detection. Consonance of simple ratios is a result of a simpler underlying rule, explained by William Sethares here:


Note that this only happens with musical instruments featuring overtones based around the harmonic series, which usually means instruments based on vibrating strings or vibrating columns of air. These are by far the most common instruments in Western music, but this is not the case for cultures that heavily use tuned percussion. Tuned percussion can easily have enharmonic timbres, which require different tuning systems for control of consonance and dissonance.

Note that Sethares' theory says nothing about dissonance being good or bad, and this new study says nothing about whether Tsimane people are capable of detecting dissonance or not. As the vast majority of humans can detect consonance and dissonance, including babies (see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222455086_'Infants'... ), I would personally be surprised if they were incapable of perceiving it. I think it's more likely that their culture simply does not value consonance. The same is true of some Western subcultures. Atonal composition is high status with many music academics, and it's genuinely enjoyable to many of them. I've enjoyed listening to atonal compositions myself.

There is definitive evidence the brain contains multiple mechanisms for pitch ratio detection.[1] Spectral theories of dissonance like Sethares', meanwhile, fail to explain some very basic phenomena.[2]

It should also be noted that people have reported trouble reproducing Sethares' dissonance curves which Sethares has, to my knowledge (we've corresponded on the subject for almost 20 years), never addressed.[3]

Lastly, there are serious problems with the ethnomusicology in Sethares' book. The scales derived from timbres, e.g. of Indonesian instruments, are designed to match the dissonance curve of the timbre only in a single mode. Intervals not measured from the chosen tonic will in general not be present as minima in the corresponding dissonance curve (except in the case of highly symmetrical scales like the diatonic scale).

[1] e.g. http://dx.doi.org/10.1152/jn.00271.2001

[2] Spectral models are all based on pairwise interactions between partials and therefore predict roughly equal dissonance scores for harmonic and subharmonic chords (including the major and minor triads). But subharmonic chords are dramatically more dissonant, as you can hear for yourself


(files beginning "o" are harmonic; "u" subharmonic)

This is a consequence of chords larger than dyads being almost completely ignored for the entire history of psychoacoustics. A strangely analogous situation may exist in economics, where the theory of comparative advantage is thought to be settled by most economists despite that there is no consensus on how to extend it beyond Ricardo's 2-country, 2-goods model of 1817.

[3] Briefly, the shape of the dissonance curves is unrealistically sensitive to the relative amplitudes of the input partials.

> no evidence that the human brain contains any hardware for pitch ratio detection. Consonance of simple ratios is a result of a simpler underlying rule,

My reading of your link is that it doesnt argue against pitch ratios being fundamental - what it does do is say that ratios are not only happening in chords but also in the sound of a single note, in different ways for different instruments.

This is very interesting work though and to me at least much more interesting than the headline post here which just points out the blindingly obvious (people raised in different musical cultures hear things differently)

The most fundamental aspect of dissonance is the empirically measured Plomp and Levelt curve. This is approximated as: d(x)=e^(-3.5x)-e^(-5.75x), where x is the difference in frequency between two pure sine tones. (see http://sethares.engr.wisc.edu/paperspdf/consonance.pdf)

If we decompose sounds into sine waves, and sum the values on the Plomp and Levelt curve for all the pairs of sines, weighted by amplitude, then for the specific case of timbres based around the harmonic series, the minima for the dissonance curve happen to fall at simple ratios. This does not mean the brain is actually counting cycles! It's only a coincidence, and for other timbres the minima fall at different places.

The curve describes the (approximate) outcome. It doesnt prove or disprove how brain processes work. What we do know is that the outcomes are related to both these curves and simple ratios.

For me it seems logical that the brain (as a well established pattern matching machine) is probably doing something far more primative than calculating exponential curves. But if thats your view i cant disprove it.

The disconnect here is because the basic function of acoustic dissonance takes places in the hair cells of the ear. Harmonic ratios simply resonate hair cells in steady patterns rather than fast beat frequencies. (Slow beat frequencies are generally non-dissonant).

Studies like the OP's turn up every few years and are massively flawed due to oversimplification. Acoustic dissonance is waaaay more than a single-dimensional binary function... and then cultural layers are added.

Your comment makes me think of playing catch. Do we really calculate parabolas in our brain when choosing how to catch a ball?

What I've read is that the brain learns what the sight picture of a ball coming right to you should look like. When we run to catch a ball, what we're trying to do is line up with that sight picture.

Do you have some sources maybe? I find it very interesting, because it doesn't agree with my experiences.

I've never played baseball, but lots of basketball and soccer, and I get this "virtual trajectory of ball" overlay, so that I can adjust my body position, jump at the right time if needed.

Also often you look at ball, memorize where it will fall, then run to get there without looking at the ball. It can take seconds if it's a long ball in soccer, so it can't possibly be just adjusting to the sight picture.

Dissonant tones also sound fine to people raised on Western music, which contains dissonant tones.

"Dissonant" is not a synonym for "not fine".

Culture doesn't fix the fact that if you play a perfect perfect fifth (exactly 2:3 frequency mix) the blend is very homogeneous, whereas if the ratio is off, you hear "beats" in it. Those beats are not produced by your upbringing.

You are reacting to an article headline. Your point doesn't really make sense when you look at the actual study. The study found that western ears actively preferred the consonant chords, whereas the indigenous people had no preference. That is an actual empirically-demonstrated difference.

I would be interested in their reaction to two notes being played which are just slightly out of tune.

Because it definitely seems like something which can be trained - professional musicians often have a pain-like reaction to it, while your Average Joe just notices that it sounds bad.

But at the same time, your Average Joe still notices that it sounds bad, and yeah, just like with dissonances, it's hard to imagine someone who doesn't.

Personally I do think that they would dislike it, because I have this theory, which is somewhat similar to / a generalization of the Uncanny Valley theory [0]. That theory is that we fundamentally dislike anything which is not similar enough to something else to be perceived as the same thing, but neither different enough from it to be clearly distinguishable as something different.

So, no matter if that's two tones which are slightly out of tune, a painting with bright blue right next to baby blue, a shadow in the dark, or rice with noodles.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

Take a gander at an actual 17th century composer playing with that idea in a most audacious way [0]. The section of the piece I'm referring to begins around 3:26.

The idea seems to be, keys that are foreign to the piece should sound dissonant.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbrrMtWICs4

I am not a musician and, after listening to the piece, I was left with a question. To me, that part does sound playfully dissonant, yet it’s enjoyable. But I wonder, is this dissonance just a product of its key being foreign to the piece, as you say, or is there any chord in use that would be considered dissonant by music theory?

It's got more to do with the tuning system.

Think of it as '6 degrees of separation'. The further away I am away from the starting point, the more alien the tuning would be, and therefore the more startling the sound.

During this period in music, the ideal was to make the 'home base' key to be as perfectly in tune as possible (making adjustments of course).

Michelangelo Rossi is playing with this, and is pushing the boundaries of those assumptions. William Byrd did much the same in England at pretty much the same time.

It makes me wonder if the hyper-specialised quarter-tone composers of our day might have had a better time of it if we had never adopted equal temperament as the standard…

That's an interesting idea and piece, thanks for sharing.

That is wild. Thanks for sharing.

This pops up in abstracted painting as well, colours (more specfically the feelings/emotions we ascribe to a particular combunations) are entirely created due our cultural context. The greatest example of this is the colour of death, Black for western contries, White for eastern.

Western fine art is more formulaic in it's creation, due to training using colour wheels (complementary across, traidic and other geometric harmonies) and a analytic notion of these harmonies.Even the pleasing ratios of area are codified (5:1 Yellow:Purple for weight balence) Itten wrote quite a few books on balence/design and became a major influence on modern art. Contrast this with naieve/primal forms created by those without that training.

One size fits all does not work for the arts. It cant be a product that is objectively correct.

Now if someone played a diasonant frequency and time the beat such that it fell in line with the tempo of a composition. That would be a cool way to add structure to a work. No idea on how to do the math here, but how many cent under standard tuning would generate this for an andante tempo?

Having grown up near Seattle, how does the color black represent death? To me, it has always represented either nothingness, like the void of Space, or opting out of an aesthetic choice - I don't know what color car I want to drive, so I'll just get a black one.

Man who runs a funeral business books his hearse in to have the paintwork redone. What colour is it?

Woman gets dressed to go to a funeral. What colour dress does she pick out?

In large parts of the west, these questions have one answer.

Yet "black tie event" does not imply death, instead it implies a fancy party. In auto racing, a black flag is a penalty, but it's not fatal. The American Express Black card is a symbol of vast wealth, not mortality.

Your statement does not contradict the former - black represents death but death does not necessarily represent black.

It's not that black implies death. Rather: what color goes well with death? In the west that color is black.

>Having grown up near Seattle, how does the color black represent death?

How is it any different "near Seattle"? All over the US and Europe people have been using black to signify death for centuries. From the usual depiction of death as a black robe wearing skeleton with a skythe, to the black color of hearses, to the black clothing traditionally associated with funerals and mourning, down to black clothes worn by Death Metal and Goth fans.

I actually think the hearse and funeral/mourning clothes count as opting out of aesthetic choice - minimizing the self by foregoing self-expression

Have you seen what funeral directors wear? Sometimes it's like a panto costume, with weird ribboned hats and waistcoats and tails and just a mishmash of different stuff.

Try this: what color is death to you?

In occident there is a general consensus that black is the normal color for death, but in some parts of Asia death is represented by white. This is the reason of karategi being white for example.

Most martial arts uniforms are white. Due to this, it could be said that white is the color of learning to fight.

Are white in japanese martial arts, for the same reason, but white is not so present in Indonesian schools of martial arts for example. It was supposed to intimidate the oponent. But the context was lost in occident. White were also much easier to clean, so was readily adopted and a practical choice indoors. In real war is not so practical, white gets dust and turns quickly to kaki, other historical uniforms were scarlet red with the purpose of hiding the blood (and vital info about the damage done to his carrier). With fire weapons, all those bright colors turned out to make easier targets and all armies learn quickly to addopt camo.

Death is a change of state. When a car runs out of gas, what color is that situation? What is the color of an arriving email? The concept doesn't apply well.

Red, Green respectively.

With a big enough sample we might be able to draw some conclusions.

Ghosts are usually white.

That's because they started picturing them back in the day as wearing the same white linen thing (shroud) they used to wrap dead bodies in before burying them.

A difference of x Hz produces a beat at 30x BPM. So notes at 440Hz and 443Hz (a difference of 11.8 cents) would produce a 90BPM tempo. But at higher frequencies the same increase in Hz corresponds to a smaller number of cents: 4400Hz to 4403Hz would be 1.18 cents.

Darn, So to match an exact tempo using beats limits to one singular note.

You're conflating colour symbolism with colour harmonies. They are two completely different phenomena.

I don't know any visual artist who would claim that colour harmonies from the art of another culture are incomprehensible/jarring. Actually I would expect to get the opposite answer.

Popular colour combos for interior decoration, though, are naturally going to vary culturally, but (I claim) within a pretty universal system of colour contrasts perceived the same way by everyone. If there's a literature out there on "weird" colour harmonies that don't work for those acculturated in certain cultures, I'd love to see it.

I was conflating terms, didn't have my morning cup. There are only a limited number of contrasts to play with so there is a general consensus on how to abuse them and that is near universal. Not so much incomprehensible, just a new way of thinking and slightly jarring. See Picasso and the African masks.

I only took a quick look but I did find this little paper on cultural differences between Americans/East Asian in terms of uniqueness/conformity in visual media and how that propagates outward. [PDF] http://php.scripts.psu.edu/faculty/n/x/nxy906/COMPS/indivdua...

> Tsimane music also doesn’t make use of harmony: only one series of notes is played at a time, so the relationships between notes don’t matter in their musical tradition.

This makes me wonder if the Tsimane don't hear dissonant harmony, but just two different melodies, like two different people talking at once rather than a chord.

Maybe in a way this is similar but opposite to how it takes a little bit of listening before you can hear Tuvan throat singing clearly - at first it sounds like one note, but after a while you get better at hearing the overtones they're modulating.

Personally, I find that some chords that sound dissonant when played alone and out of context turn around completely and sound gorgeous and intriguing when played as part of a piece.

Minor 6 chords are amazing in the right context, and diminished and augmented scales too. Some of my favorite Bach pieces are the ones that hit a measure or two of fully diminished key.

Is it possible that part of the surprise here is that we've overstated dissonance as something negative, and led ourselves to expect something "dissonant" to be more cacophonous than it really is? I do prefer describing music more in terms of tension and resolution than consonance and dissonance. And tension is a critical part for the resolution to have it's full effect and power, it provides the contrast, and it often comes with as much or more subtlety and beauty, as far as I can tell.

There was a dicsussion and interview with studys author (srongly named as Johsn in the arstechnica aticle) recently on BBC radio 4's Inside cience. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jqr1y 15:10

They should test how well if Tsimane people are able to differentiate between consonant harmony and dissonant harmony.

It's weird that if you go all the trouble travel into far away places to test things, but you don't test for that.

Probably a much trickier study, (involving autopsies?), but it would be informative to compare the distribution of the cochlear hairs among various groups of people. To what degree the arrangement is in logarithmic series [1]

[1] http://www.indiana.edu/~emusic/acoustics/ear.htm http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756239208...


First you give them few labeled examples of consonant ad harmony then dissonant harmony and then ask them to label next examples.

Theophrastus is not talking about your experiment, but suggesting another.

It makes me wonder about the birds. To my ear birdsong is typically more consonant in general use and dissonant in alarm or alert use. But a quick search did not turn up a lot of research in that space.

It's not just for western music. Hindustani music is more "quantized" around scales than Carnatic music, and many North Indians find it harder to listen to Carnatic music for that reason.

> To explore the effects of harmonicity and roughness found in Study 1, we measured pleasantness ratings for pairs of pure tones (single frequencies) separated by intervals from the chromatic scale (0–8 semitones)21 (Fig. 3f). This range includes some consonant intervals, for which the tone frequencies approximate harmonics of a common fundamental (and are thus related by simple integer ratios), and some dissonant intervals, for which the tone frequencies are inharmonic.

So... they went and found a group of people unfamiliar with western music, and then tested which of the intervals from 12-tone-equal-temperament sound good to them?

What would be the result if we were to repeat the test with people familiar with western music, but the notes were taken from 13-tone-equal-temperament? What conclusions (if any) could we draw from that about whether those familiar with western music appreciate harmony?

Granted, notes like the equal-tempered major third are probably close enough to their just equivalents (such as the 5:4 major third) that to someone who was familiar with the latter, the former would probably be recognized as such even to one who had never heard equal-tempered intervals before, but still they'd probably sound weirdly out-of-tune. (The ET third is about 15 cents sharp of the just third.) Why not just test with just intervals, which are more universal/fundamental than equal tempered intervals, which are sort of a modern "good enough" compromise we use for convenience.

That Bobby McFerrin video is one of my favourite videos on YouTube, never fails to make me smile

> Musical perception is, surprisingly, not shared by all humans.



   With cross-cultural tasks, there is always a risk that 
   participants don’t have the right idea about what they 
   should be doing. To control for this, the researchers also 
   played participants vocal noises and found that all groups 
   preferred laughter rather than gasps.
What? It is a much different thing noticing differences between melodies and differences between laughs and gasps.

The irony is that the Western concept of something that is "in tune" is actually dissonant to the same Western cultures of the past. Well-tempered tuning has only been around since Bach's time. Our music today would not sound right to those during or before his time, in general.

The idea that a culture can arbitrary accept "dissonant tones" as long as they have not been conditioned otherwise suggests that I can button-mash a keyboard and maybe they would find it pleasurable.

Perhaps consonance and dissonance are concepts that are largely defined by musical circumstances. If that's the case, then it doesn't make sense to approach the problem with a sort of western definition of dissonance.

In other words, I think it's safe to assume every culture has an idea of what is tasteful and what is not in their music. The way I see it, if you take that position, then you can also assume the culture has their own definitions of what is consonant and what is dissonant. These may or may not coincide with the western theory of common practice period harmony.

Hard to believe a 5th doesn't sound sweet(er) to all. Even Pythagoras thought so.

I noticed my four year old daughter relishes quite outlandish and dissonant modern classical music. The sort of stuff most people ask me to shut off the moment it starts.

They used to teach this as an open enrollment course in college (at least mine, which was not atypical of the larger liberal arts college scene). It was called "music of non-western cultures", and pretty much everyone who took it came out with the opinion that this non-western music was pretty interesting and cool.

I mean, c'mon. Anyone who has been exposed to the concept of non-western music will know that the 12-tone scale is not a universal construction.

Well, let's not read much into it. The headline says that dissonant tones sound fine to people not raised on Western music. It doesn't say that dissonant tones don't sound fine to people raised on Western music. ;)

Too bad that the article doesn't even attempt to explain what is going on mathematically. Dissonance is closely related to beating[1], the phenomenon where the sum of two slightly different frequencies results in an oscillation at a low frequency.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_%28acoustics%29

Or we could interpret it into saying that cultures with less developed musical culture, like this Tsimane, do not notice very well the subtleties of the songs, and may well find any strange noise "good", just like the young people in our culture (it doesn't matter that the strange noises young people hear are always tonal, they are used here just as an example).

    gathering data from 64 Tisane people, as well as 50 urban Bolivians, 25 US non-musicians, and 23 US musicians
    different group of 49 Tsimane people and 47 musically trained people in the US
Where are the trained tsimane musicians?

Being married to an Iranian, I hear a lot of persian music. Especially the traditional one sounds really "dissonant" to my western ear and it took me years to accustom. Of course for my wife and all of her family persian tunes sound perfectly harmonious.

Not really news.

Also quarter-tone music sounds weird to western ears and is common around the world.

I don't know if it's the only study of its kind, but I think the point of studying anything is not always the novelty factor of it, but rather making what we "already knew" more explicit and concrete. At least in math when a "known-to-be-true" conjecture is proven, we don't say it isn't news :) Maybe it's different in science and music.

Try some quarter-tone music.


But "traditional" quarter-tone music typically does not use much harmonics, right?

I think you need to practice to appreciate music - some people get just stressed by listening to a complex Bach fugue, and some get equally stressed when listening to rap music or traditional jazz. Probably because they do not pick up the nuances.

Certain kinds of music certainly. And you can also lose this appreciation. I listened to various industrial artists some years back and enjoyed their complex arrangement. Or to stuff like Sunn-O.

Nowadays I just feel it's noise, most of the time.

Except apparently to the West, otherwise Westerners would be culturally conditioned to not find it weird.

Traditional Ganga singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XAKuG5_FHw

More glory for semantics at the expense of understanding

This seems like clickbait. I'll read it, however.

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