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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Nov;142(4):1142-58. doi: 10.1037/a0030830. Epub 2013 Jan 7.

Consonance and pitch.

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School of Psychological Sciences.


To date, no consensus exists in the literature as to theories of consonance and dissonance. Experimental data collected over the last century have raised questions about the dominant theories that are based on frequency relationships between the harmonics of music chords. This study provides experimental evidence that strongly challenges these theories and suggests a new theory of dissonance based on relationships between pitch perception and recognition. Experiment 1 shows that dissonance does not increase with increasing numbers of harmonics in chords as predicted by Helmholtz's (1863/1954) roughness theory, nor does it increase with fewer pitch-matching errors as predicted by Stumpf's (1898) tonal fusion theory. Dissonance was strongly correlated with pitch-matching error for chords, which in turn was reduced by chord familiarity and greater music training. This led to the proposition that long-term memory templates for common chords assist the perception of pitches in chords by providing an estimate of the chord intervals from spectral information. When recognition mechanisms based on these templates fail, the spectral pitch estimate is inconsistent with the period of the waveform, leading to cognitive incongruence and the negative affect of dissonance. The cognitive incongruence theory of dissonance was rigorously tested in Experiment 2, in which nonmusicians were trained to match the pitches of a random selection of 2-pitch chords. After 10 training sessions, they rated the chords they had learned to pitch match as less dissonant than the unlearned chords, irrespective of their tuning, providing strong support for a cognitive mechanism of dissonance.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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