Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music


Consonance and Dissonance - Effect on Musical Organization

In outlining the various theories of consonance and dissonance above, we have overlooked musical practice. If consonance and dissonance are important in music, we ought to be able to use music itself as a test for the various theories.

The extant literature shows that music is indeed organized in a manner consistent with the empirical research on consonance and dissonance.

  • Preference for Clear Pitches. If composers endeavor to avoid virtual pitch dissonance, then this avoidance should be reflected in the tendency to use harmonic complex tones and sonorities approximating the harmonic series.
  • Frequency of Occurrence of Harmonic Intervals. If composers endeavor to avoid sensory dissonance, then this avoidance should be reflected in the frequency of occurrence for various harmonic intervals. We would expect that dissonant intervals (such as minor seconds and major sevenths) would be less common that consonance intervals (such as perfect octaves and major sixths). Huron (1991) showed that there is a strong negative correlation between frequency of occurrence and degree of dissonance for concurrent diads in the music of J.S. Bach.
  • Chordal-tone Spacing. If composers endeavor to avoid tonotopic dissonance, then multi-tone chords ought to have wider intervals in bass region. More specifically, the spacing between chordal tones ought to typically result in an even spacing of spectral components with respect to critical bands. Huron and Sellmer (1992) compared three scales (frequency, log frequency, and critical bands) and showed that chordal tone spacing correlates best with critical band spacing.
  • Preferred Chord Arrangements. If composers endeavor to avoid sensory dissonance, then this avoidance should be reflected in the preference for certain chord arrangements. Hutchinson and Knopoff calculated the dissonance for various arrangements of four note major chords. Some arrangements are less dissonant than others. Huron (MS) counted the number of various major chord structures in J.S. Bach's chorale harmonizations. A significant negative correlation was found between the most dissonant chord arrangements and the frequency of occurrence for these arrangements. This correlation is independent of pitch height and so largely unaffected by critical bands.
  • Preferred Musical Scales. If composers endeavor to avoid sensory dissonance, then this avoidance should be reflected in the preference for certain types of musical scales. Aggregate dissonance for common scales is low compared with other possible scales. Common scales exhibit optimum sensory consonance (Huron, 1994)
  • Preferred Drone Tones. If composers endeavor to avoid sensory dissonance, then this avoidance should be reflected in the preference for particular drone tones -- given a particular scale. The most consonant "drone" pitches appear to occur more frequently. E.g. Korean music (Huron MS, Nam). Gregorian chant (Huron MS).