New Study Sheds Light On Consonance And Dissonance What determines which music sounds pleasant or unpleasant? According to a recent study from Current Biology, basic neurological and cultural influences are at play. The study's lead researcher, Josh McDermott of NYU, discusses his findings and their implications.
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New Study Sheds Light On Consonance And Dissonance

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New Study Sheds Light On Consonance And Dissonance

New Study Sheds Light On Consonance And Dissonance

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now, a musical quiz: which sounds better to you? This?

(Soundbite of dissonance chords)

HANSEN: Or this?

(Soundbite of consonance chords)

HANSEN: If you picked the second sound, youre not alone. It turns out there are some basic neurological and perhaps cultural reasons for that decision. Your level of musical training may also play a role, according to a new study in the science publication Current Biology.

New York University researcher Josh McDermott is the study's lead author and he joins us. Welcome to the program.

Dr. JOSH MCDERMOTT (Researcher, New York University): Thank you.

HANSEN: So in musical terms, if something sounds pleasant it's called consonant and if its unpleasant it's called dissonant. But what determines what sounds good or bad?

Dr. MCDERMOTT: Well, it's something that people have been arguing about for a very long time, going back to the Greeks. And there have been a couple sort of families of hypothesis that people have entertained. I mean, on the one hand, you know, if you talk to a lot of 20th century composers, they'll tend to tell you that what we like is arbitrary and it's just determined by what we're used to hearing. So, in other words, there are some kinds of chords that occur a lot in Western music and so Westerners hear those a lot and they learn to like those.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MCDERMOTT: But, on the other hand, there are lots of other people who have supposed that what makes things sound good or bad is rooted in some basic physical properties of sound. Our study actually provides evidence for both kinds of explanations. That is, weve found evidence that there's a particular property of sound that seems to be causally related to whether chords sound good or bad, but also that the fact that we like that property of sound is something that's strongly influenced by people's musical experience.

HANSEN: Wow. Well, you have a computer with you, right?

Dr. MCDERMOTT: That's right.

HANSEN: Okay. And youve loaded up some musical examples?

Dr. MCDERMOTT: Sure. Sure. Sure. I mean the first thing to realize is that if you just listen to a simple sound, you know, so like this...

(Soundbite of flute)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: So that's a single note that's played on a flute. Or this...

(Soundbite of flute)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: So even though those notes, they sound like one thing, they're actually composed of a bunch of different frequencies. So a single frequency just sounds like this.

(Soundbite of single frequency)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: And real sounds tend to have lots of different frequencies. So compare these two sounds.

(Soundbite of harmonic sound)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: So that's what we call a harmonic sound. So it has a particular relationship between the frequencies and its characteristic of a lot of the normal sounds that we hear in the world. Now, in this particular sound, weve just jittered the frequencies a little bit, but it sounds pretty different.

(Soundbite of dissonant sound)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: So you can probably hear that there's something a little bit off about that kind of sound. So we've found that the preference between those two kinds of sounds was much stronger in people with musical training. The size of the preference that people have for nice sounding chords like this one...

(Soundbite of consonant sound)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: Over chords that dont sound nice like this one...

(Soundbite of dissonant sound)

Dr. MCDERMOTT: So the magnitude of that preference was related to someone's musical experience. So the more years somebody had spent playing an instrument, the stronger they preferred the nice sounding chords to the bad sounding chords.

HANSEN: Did your study though, take into account cultural differences, or are consonant sounds universally consonant?

Dr. MCDERMOTT: That's a great question. And this study was conducted at the University of Minnesota and our subjects were University of Minnesota undergrads, so it was not a very diverse set of subjects. Nonetheless, they varied a lot in their musical experience and so we saw affects of that. But we didnt test people from some far part of the world that have very different kinds of musical experience. So we dont know for sure how the results would be different.

However, the fact that we find strong influences of musical experiences suggests that there would very likely be big difference.

HANSEN: Josh McDermott is a researcher at New York University and lead author on a recent study on musical consonance, published in the magazine Current Biology. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you.

Dr. MCDERMOTT: Thank you.

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