Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

Consonance and Dissonance - Effect of Culture

What is the role of culture in the phenomena of consonance and dissonance? We might expect that judgements of consonance and dissonance rely to some extent on exposure to a musical culture -- that is, to learning.

Although many people have speculated about the effect of culture on judgements of consonance/dissonance, depressingly few pertinent experiments have been carried out. The poverty of experimental work in this area is a sad indictment of those who tend to pre-judge the issues. One the one hand, many psychoacousticians have tended to assume that the auditory periphery plans the preeminent role in consonance/dissonance perception. Since the human hearing organ changes little around the world, psychoacousticians assume there is no need to repeat experiments with people from different cultures. By contrast, many ethnomusicologists have tended to assume that the differences in perception between cultures are patently obvious. Once again, they assume there is no need to carry out experiments to test their intuitions.

The existing experimental evidence is mixed. Some experiments imply that judgements of consonance/dissonance are sensitive to cultural background whereas other evidence implies that such judgements are not especially sensitive to cultural background.

Enculturation of Acceptable Tuning

By way of illustration, consider the following data. In the Western equal temperament tuning system, perfect fifths are mistuned by two cents (two one-hundreds of a semitone). Specifically, equally-tempered fifths are smaller by two cents. Joos Vos (1987) had 18 Western musicians judge the acceptability of tunings for various tempered perfect fifths. The graph below shows the results for tone durations of 0.25 seconds (fast presentation) and 0.50 (slow presentation).

Acceptability Ratings

Notice that the results are skewed to the left of the perfectly just fifth (0 cents deviation). In general, it appears that western musician subjects judged the slightly small interval as more acceptable than the just perfect fifth. This result is consistent with a learned preference arising from cultural exposure. Notice, however, that Vos had his musicians judge the acceptability of the intervals rather than the consonance, pleasantness or some other criterion.

Butler and Daston

In 1968, Janet Butler and Paul Daston carried out a study of consonance and dissonance where they compared American and Japanese listeners. Both American and Japanese listeners were asked to judge the consonance of various equally-tempered intervals. In addition, each listener was given a discrimination task where they were required to make same/different judgments for six paired dyads. Finally, Butler and Daston asked their Japanese listeners to indicate whether they preferred Western music or traditional Japanese music.

The following table shows the Spearman rank-order correlations between the various subject groups. The asterisk (*) indicates listeners who performed perfectly on the interval discrimination task. The cross (+) indicates Japanese listeners who stated that they preferred traditional Japanese music over Western music.


The results show evidence of both strong similarities between Japanese and American listeners, and also some evidence of culture difference. The lowest correlation (0.82) occurs between those American listeners who scored best on interval discrimination task and the Japanese listeners who preferred Japanese music. In general, the results show a general consistency between Japanese and American listeners. If there are significant differences between the music listening of Japanese and American listeners, that difference is not to be found in judgments of the consonance of isolated dyads.

Lundin (1947) carried out an experiment where Japanese and Western listeners were contrasted.

Cazden's Expectation Dissonance

Music theorist Norman Cazden wrote a number of articles on consonance and dissonance spanning the period 1942-1980. Unaware of the work of Plomp & Levelt (1965) and Kameoka & Kuriyagawa (1969), Cazden (1980) argued that the evidence in support of acoustic and physiological accounts of consonance and dissonance is weak. He did not doubt that a low-level sonorous unpleasantness (what he called euphony exists, but he regarded the musical significance of this phenomenon to be marginal:

"... in principle, euphony refers rather to the overall psychoacoustic quality of a sonority isolated from any musical context.

"... With euphony thus distinguished, and defined as a composite of all those psychoacoustic criteria capable of affecting a gradation of isolated sonorities, the terms consonance and dissonance proper may be reserved instead for those particular musical distinctions observed in the practice of Western tonal music" (Cazden, 1980; p.155)
Cazden's distinction between euphony and consonance/dissonance is echoed in the writings of many scholars. Cazden (1980) provides the following table of distinctions and their scholarly origins:

EuphonieDynamieChoron, de la Fage
Consonance physiqueConsonance esthétiqueRenaud
Konsonanz - DissonanzHarmonie - DisharmonieWundt
Konsonanz - DissonanzKonkordanz - DiskordanzStumpf
Konsonanz Objectiv, KonsonanzgefühlHarmonie Subjektiv, HarmoniegefühlHennig
akustischer Konsonanz - DissonanzKonsonanz - DissonanzLouis, Thuille
consonanza acusticaconsonanza armonicaGentili
Sensorial consonanceAesthetic consonanceGuernsey
Einfach - KompliziertHarmonieführungDeutsch
akustische Konsonanzmusikalische KonsonanzNüll

More important than euphony in Cazden's view is what we have called expectation dissonance:

"[Dissonance] identifies rather the functional moment of any sonorous event that is expected to resolve, while the moment to which it ultimately resolves is then deemed consonant. Should the framework for the normative expectations of this kind not be present, or should the apparent resolution tendencies and outcomes be thwarted consistently, as may happen in some compositional styles of twentieth century art music, neither consonance nor dissonance can be said to exist." (Cazden, 1980; p.157)

Cazden properly noted that "even a single tone may engender that urgent expectation of resolution that is the essence of dissonance." (p.157).

Cazden argued that there are three levels of expectation-related dissonance:

  1. Dissonating Tone. A nonharmonic or non-chordal tone has a tendency to resolve within the framework of an underlying chord or harmony.
  2. Dissonant Chord Moment. A chord may be dissonant to the extent that it arouses the expectation of resolving to another chord within a harmonic progression.
  3. Tonal Center Dissonance. A passage may retain a tonic or dominant tonal center, and dissonance arises is resolved when the dominant tonal area ultimately moves to the original tonic area.

Note that Cazden refers to his theory as a "systemic approach" to consonance/dissonance. Although he invokes the psychology of expectation to explain the origins of dissonance, Cazden says rather little about this important concept. For example, without explicitly saying so, Cazden implies that expectations are largely learned -- and so reflective of cultural milieu.

"The cultural relativity of the systemic approach may ... account negatively for some cross-cultural effects. For example, it may explain why listeners conditioned to Western music sense a somewhat directionless indecision of harmonic moment when they attend to the heterophonic gamelan music of Bali or to the highly mannered Gagaku music of Japan. Conversely, systemic habits undoubtedly engender bewilderment at the seeming irrelevance of Western harmonic relationships to the classical Karnatic music of India or to the drum ensemble music of Ghana." (Cazden, 1980; p.161)

Finally, Cazden argues that "the raw psychoacoustic or sonorous properties of the musical signal can provide at most certain limiting natural conditions for the art of music, just as there are broad natural limits and conditions for language" (p.161)

Other Research

The principal published literature on this question includes the following:

Cazden, N. (1945). Musical consonance and dissonance: A cultural criterion. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.4, No. 1, pp. 3-11.

Cazden, N. (1960). Sensory theories of musical consonance. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 301-319.

Cazden, N. (1980). The definition of consonance and dissonance. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 2, pp. 123-168.

Guernsey, M. (1928). The role of consonance and dissonance in music. American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 40, pp. 173-204.

Lundin, R.W. (1947). Toward a cultural theory of consonance. Journal of Psychology, Vol. 23, pp. 45-49.

Moran, H., & Pratt, C.C. (1926). Variability of judgments of musical intervals. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 9, pp. 492-500.

The work of Moran & Pratt (1926) and Guernsey (1928) document the differences between musicians and non-musicians. Guernsey showed that musicians make a distinction between consonance and pleasantness.

Musicians vs. Non-Musicians

An argument can be made, that the major learned difference between groups of listeners is not to be found in differences of cultural milieu. The most consistent difference between groups of listeners is between musicians and non-musicians.