Western musical styles use a large variety of chords and vertical sonorities. Based on objective acoustical properties, chords can be situated on a dissonant-consonant continuum. While this might to some extent converge with the unpleasant-pleasant continuum, subjective liking might diverge for various chord forms from music across different styles. Our study aimed to investigate how well appraisals of the roughness and pleasantness dimensions of isolated chords taken from real-world music are predicted by Parncutt’s established model of sensory dissonance. Furthermore, we related these subjective ratings to style of origin and acoustical features of the chords as well as musical sophistication of the raters. Ratings were obtained for chords deemed representative of the harmonic language of three different musical styles (classical, jazz and avant-garde music), plus randomly generated chords. Results indicate that pleasantness and roughness ratings were, on average, mirror opposites; however, their relative distribution differed greatly across styles, reflecting different underlying aesthetic ideals. Parncutt’s model only weakly predicted ratings for all but Classical chords, suggesting that listeners’ appraisal of the dissonance and pleasantness of chords bears not only on stimulus-side but also on listener-side factors. Indeed, we found that levels of musical sophistication negatively predicted listeners’ tendency to rate the consonance and pleasantness of any one chord as coupled measures, suggesting that musical education and expertise may serve to individuate how these musical dimensions are apprehended.
While completing my doctoral studies at the University of Calgary, I wrote a Max external, nb.dissonance, to estimate the amount of “sensory dissonance” created for any input chord. The external is based on Sean Ferguson’s method for estimating sensory dissonance detailed in the document portion of his doctoral thesis, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2000), as well as Richard Parncutt’s descriptions in Harmony: A Psychoacoustical Approach (1989). This post summarizes Ferguson’s method for estimating sensory dissonance and includes examples of how I experimented with the concept of sensory dissonance during the early stages of composing my dissertation composition Through a Window. My intention in writing this post is mainly to solidify my understanding of the methods described by Ferguson and Parncutt and to recommend these sources to anyone interested in the topics described below.
Sensory Dissonance feature extraction: a case study by Anna Terzaroli
An audio feature can become relevant as a musical feature. This paper focuses on the “Sensory Dissonance” audio feature and its use as a musical parameter useful to analyze and compose music of all genres. It is possible by developing a software tool able to detect the presence of dissonance understood as Sensory Dissonance, to quantify the dissonance and then to draw a graphic function of the traced dissonance. This function is placed under the sound which it relates, while the music signal may be written according to the western notation system. The obtained curve does not only provide information concerning the degree of dissonance: it also allows a deeper reading of the entire analyzed musical work.
Relating Tuning and Timbre by William A. Sethares
If you've ever attempted to play music in weird tunings (where "weird" means anything other than 12 tone equal temperament), then you've probably noticed that certain timbres (or tones) sound good in some scales and not in others. 17 and 19 tone equal temperament are easy to play in, for instance, because many of the standard timbres in synthesizers sound fine in these tunings. I remember when I first played in 16 tone. I had to audition hundreds of sounds before I found a few good timbres. When I tried to play in 10 tone, though, none of the timbres in my synthesizers sounded good. This article explains why this happens, and shows how to design timbres and scales that complement each other. This suggests a way to design new musical instruments with unusual timbres that can play consonantly in unusual scales.
Sensory Perceptions of Harmony, Dissonance, Color and Timbre: Creative Insights in the Fine Arts and Daily Communication by Ellen Gilmer
Although no two people see colors, hear sounds or express thoughts, feelings, desires or realizations in exactly the same way, by sharing our unique perceptions of these sensory stimuli, we can communicate and appreciate the perceptions and viewpoints of others. Even the most dissonant musical chords, painterly strokes or written and spoken words gain values of harmony and acceptance as their rhythms, hues and tonalities grow familiar and vital to us all.