Study: consonance and dissonance in music is learned

Posted on: February 20, 2013

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Lindsay Abrams writes, “Why does the music that to some people is lovely, even transcendent, sound to others like a lot of noise? Researchers at the University of Melbourne attribute to the amount of pleasure we take in music to how much dissonance we hear—the degree of ‘perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound.’ The team played both ‘pure tones’ and various chords for participants—a mixed group of trained musicians studying at the school’s conservatory and members of the general public—and had them rate the sounds for perceived dissonance, and for familiarity, on a five-point scale. Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn’t previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant. … From a practical standpoint, the results seem to suggest that we can train ourselves to better appreciate music. … The more ambitious implication of the findings, according to lead author Neil McLachlan, is that it ‘overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.’ ”

Posted February 20, 2013