On the Fluidity of Consonance and Dissonance: The Influence of Musical Context

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The consonance/dissonance (C/D) level of a triadic chord is not a fixed or absolute value. Rather, it is fluid, since C/D depends both on a chord’s sonic characteristics and on the musical context in which it appears. To test the fluidity of C/D—the extent to which C/D perception is dependent on musical context—4 types of chords (major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads) were presented in isolation (“without musical context”) and as part of a short cadence (IV-V-I, “with musical context”). The C/D level of each chord was judged, as was the overall C/D and pleasantness/unpleasantness (P/U) level of the cadences. When isolated, major triads were considered most consonant, followed by minor and diminished triads, while augmented triads were judged most dissonant. In the context of a musical cadence, this rank order remained the same. However, evaluations of the dissonance of augmented and diminished chords varied depending on each chord’s functional position within the cadence. For instance, diminished triads were relatively consonant when on the subdominant, while augmented triads were relatively dissonant when on the tonic. These findings lend support to the hypotheses that: (a) the degree to which the harmonic function of a chord is familiar, and (b) the degree to which a chord’s stability (and hence also the listener’s expectation) is violated contribute to the perception of C/D.

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