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3 minutes reading time (618 words)

Consonance vs. dissonance: Inborn or cultural?

For many years, I have taken issue with the notion (held by some) that consonance—the absence of musical tension—equates to combinations of pleasant and agreeable musical sounds, while dissonance—the presence of musical tension—equates to combinations of unpleasant and disagreeable musical sounds. It is a distinction with which I strongly disagree because I am among those who find pure musical consonance often boring to listen to, and dissonance to be scintillating and interesting. This has nothing to do with the false, and, in any event, imprecise issue of pleasantness or unpleasantness.

In pre-20th century classical music, dissonant intervals usually resolved fairly quickly to consonant intervals. But in a good deal of 20th and 21st century music, composers often go directly from dissonant interval to dissonant interval at times, without ever feeling the necessity to achieve resolution.

Moreover, dissonance may sometimes be viewed as a function in certain contexts. Occasionally, an ordinarily consonant interval may appear to sound dissonant—that is to say, to contain musical tension. For example, an octave—ordinarily thought of as a consonant interval—may seem to sound tense and thus demand resolution, as in the following illustration of a sequential pattern. In the second example, the octave C on beat 1 of measure 2 demands movement down to the B, a half-step below it.

So, in this unusual case, the normally consonant interval of an octave feels compelled to move towards the normally dissonant interval of a major 7th, the complete opposite of the normal dissonance-to-consonance-resolution practice that has characterized so much of Western classical music throughout history.

Inborn or cultural?
People's reactions to consonance and dissonance are thought by many to be inborn. However, exposure to Western music over many years could easily have led some to believe that cultural influences, rather than nature, may have constituted the basis for the apparent Western preference for consonance over dissonance. Daniel Akst in Wall Street Journal article "Our Taste in Music Isn't Inborn," reported that while consonant and dissonant chords appear in the music of many cultures, "Western music is arguably the most consonant, and wide exposure to it has made it
difficult to rule out cultural influences as the basis for preferring consonance."1

He referenced another article from Nature Magazine2, where scientists at several prestigious American universities, including MIT, Brandeis, and Baylor, conducted a study of a society of pre-industrial Bolivian Amazonian hunter-gatherers who had had no exposure to any music other than their own monophonic (one melody only/no harmony) music. This group, called the Tsimane, lived in a remote area devoid of electricity and could be reached only by boat. According to the article, they "were relatively free of cultural bias."

These scientists played various consonant and dissonant groups of chords for them, and no expression of preference for one type over the other was offered. This was in marked contrast to the preference for consonance strongly expressed by control groups of urban Bolivians, as well as both musicians and nonmusicians in the U.S.

Dr. McDermott wrote, "This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture and that the preference is not innate." Moreover, the strong implication is that "infants may be able to quickly acquire preferences for what they are exposed to at an early age."

With the advent of chromaticism in music, especially starting in the Romantic era (a period often defined roughly as 1825-1890), greater opportunities for dissonance occurred, and thus increased opportunities for expressiveness in music. The employment of musical dissonance in repertoire increased dramatically in the 20th century and continues to this day. If young people are to develop a liberal musical attitude and an appreciation for 20th and 21st century music—the music of our time—it would be to their advantage to be exposed to it at the earliest possible age, including at infancy.

1 Daniel Akst, "Our Taste in Music Isn't Inborn," Wall Street Journal,
2 Josh H. McDermott, Alan F. Schultz, Eduardo A. Undurraga, and Ricardo A. Godoy, "Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception,"

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