Separating the Cultural from the Universal in Harmony Perception 

Some two years ago, I asked the question in the Music & Science blog series whether the perception of consonance and dissonance is universal. While the world has well and truly changed since then, pandemics aside these past two years have been fruitful for the Music & Science Lab in terms of new research into this question. In hindsight we were very lucky to be able to collect data in remote Northwest Pakistan in the late summer of 2019, just before the world closed and with the subsequent rise of tension in the geopolitically volatile region between Northwest Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. With two years’ worth of research and with two new articles published on this particular topic (Lahdelma et al., 2021; Athanasopoulos et al., 2021), the answer to the original question whether the perception of consonance and dissonance is universal seems to be clearer.

The preference for consonance varies across cultures but the aversion to harsh dissonance is universal

The division between consonance and dissonance, which is one of the cornerstones of Western music, has been studied scarcely across cultures. This is not surprising in the light that the perception of consonance and dissonance is quite mercurial and hard to grasp even in the context of Western music and with Western listeners (starting with the notorious definition issue of what we mean by consonance in the first place), let alone when studied across cultures. Perhaps not surprisingly, the few previous cross-cultural studies into this question have been highly inconclusive. The most recent of these investigations and the one that has undoubtedly received most scholarly attention is by McDermott and colleagues (2016). This study investigated how consonance and dissonance are perceived among the Tsimané, an indigenous population living in the Amazon rainforest (Bolivia) with limited exposure to Western culture. The study concluded that the Tsimané are completely indifferent to consonance/dissonance, although this conclusion seemed somewhat premature (as I noted in the blog post from two years ago) in the light that the stimuli in this study did not include highly dissonant sonorities; such highly dissonant chords have been demonstrated to elicit automatic negative responses in Western listeners and are hence good candidates for universally unpleasant stimuli.

As both the preference for consonance (allegedly due to consonant sonorities’ higher similarity to human vocalisations) as well as the aversion to high amounts of dissonance (due to the unpleasant interference created in the inner ear that the auditory system cannot fully resolve) have been proposed to be possible universals, these theories can be tested easily. If the preference for consonant harmonies that resemble harmonic human vocalisations would indeed be inherent and hence universal, they should be present across all human cultures. Accordingly, if the aversion to the jarring roughness of harsh dissonances is indeed a biologically determined universal, this again should be a recurring pattern across all cultures. To test these notions, we conducted a study on members of two remote tribes residing in Northwest Pakistan with minimal exposure to Western music and compared their responses to those of Western (UK) listeners.

Our results show both striking differences but also similarities between Northwest Pakistani and UK listeners with regard to harmony perception. Both Northwest Pakistani and UK listeners disliked the most dissonant of the presented chords (the chromatic cluster), supporting the claim that highly dissonant chords may well be universally perceived as unpleasant. Conversely, the preference for the consonance of the major triad was present only in the case of UK listeners as members of the Pakistani tribes did not indicate a preference for this chord. This is a very surprising finding, and while in line with the study by McDermott at al. (2016) in terms of a lack of universal preference for consonance, it does not corroborate the theory according to which consonance preferences are related to the perception of human vocalisations. Notably however, this lack of preference for consonance in a non-Western population is in line with cumulative evidence about the strong role of learning and familiarity in the consonance preferences of Western listeners as well. Contrarily, our finding of the cross-cultural aversion to harsh dissonance is line with the notion that dissonance perception might indeed contain a universal element, and this finding is all the more important in the light that previous cross-cultural studies have not yet contained highly dissonant chords in the experiment stimuli.

The positive major versus negative minor emotion distinction is not a cross-cultural universal 

In addition to consonance and dissonance, another important dichotomy in Western music is the affective connotation of the major and minor modes. In Western culture this affective distinction is overarching (although naturally dependent on other musical cues such as tempo and timbre), and it holds even with single isolated chords both according to self-reports as well as neural responses. The origins of this convention are highly debated, but the crucial question of whether there is something inherent behind this phenomenon has remained unclear with conflicting reports of both universal emotion recognition (partly) based on mode as well as evidence linking it to a gradually learnt response in the West as well. Strikingly, according to our results this pattern of response was in fact reversed across UK and Northwest Pakistani listeners. The results indicate that de facto the biggest role in this affective distinction is played by familiarity through exposure and not by acoustic phenomena such as the minor triad’s more ambiguous root or the minor third’s similarity to subdued speech compared to the major third. While major keys and chords are considerably more common in Western music than their minor counterparts, this ratio is actually reversed in the musical culture of the Northwest Pakistani tribes. As a whopping 85% of their music utilises the minor mode according to our analysis of a corpus of the tribes’ music, it is no wonder that they clearly associate the minor triad with positive affect at the expense of the (for them) less frequent and familiar major triad. Notably, this finding is in line with previous theorising according to which the emotional differences between major and minor are arbitrary and were reinforced in a historical process of cultural differentiation. Of further historic interest is that also in 13th and 14th century Western polyphony pitch combinations corresponding to the minor triad (in modern terminology) were more prominent than pitch combinations corresponding to the major triad. This tendency did not flip until the 15th century, and the major triad became conspicuously more prominent than the minor triad only in the 16th century in Western polyphony as well. So, while the aversion to a high amount of dissonance seems to be a cross-cultural universal, the positive and happy character of the major versus the subdued and sad character of the minor is not a cross-cultural musical universal. Our data implies this both with single isolated chords as well as with actual musical excerpts using horizontal background harmonisations (successive chords).

Taken together these two years of research have definitely shed some much-needed light on the question of which aspects of harmony perception are biologically determined and which are products of our cultures. While the preference for consonance seems to be notably shaped by culture and familiarity, the aversion to high amounts of dissonance may well indeed be a cross-cultural universal. The affective connotations of the major and minor modes however seem to be very much a cultural construct, which is perhaps not that surprising in the light that this dichotomy has been shown to be a gradually learnt cultural convention in the West as well.

As it seems unlikely that we’ll be conducting further fieldwork in Northwest Pakistan anytime soon due to the still ongoing pandemic as well as the rising political unrest at the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, it feels all the more fortuitous that we managed to compare the perception of harmony across such diverse cultures just in the nick of time. Sadly, with the rapid speed of globalisation threatening the diversity of musical cultures such research endeavours will no doubt be harder and harder to conduct in the future. 

A list of recent publications on consonance and dissonance by the Music & Science Lab:

Armitage, J., Lahdelma, I., & Eerola, T. (2021). Automatic responses to musical intervals: Contrasts in acoustic roughness predict affective priming in Western listenersThe Journal of the Acoustical Society of America150(1), 551-560.

Athanasopoulos, G., Eerola, T., Lahdelma, I., & Kaliakatsos-Papakostas, M. (2021). Harmonic organisation conveys both universal and culture-specific cues for emotional expression in musicPlos one16(1), e0244964.

Eerola, T., & Lahdelma, I. (2021). The Anatomy of consonance/dissonance: Evaluating acoustic and cultural predictors across multiple datasets with chordsMusic & Science4, 20592043211030471.

Lahdelma, I., Athanasopoulos, G., & Eerola, T. (2021). Sweetness is in the ear of the beholder: chord preference across United Kingdom and Pakistani listenersAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

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