Why Dissonant Music Strikes the Wrong Chord in the Brain

Why Dissonant Music Strikes the Wrong Chord in the Brain

Sit back in your chair for a moment if you can. Close your eyes, but don’t close this page. I want you to imagine something.

In the background, you can hear a piano start to play. The chords sound familiar as they span an octave.

As the musician plays “Chopsticks,” a note gets missed. What does that sound like in your imagination? Is it a pleasant experience?

What you just visualized is an example of dissonant music.

Why Dissonant Music Strikes the Wrong Chord in the Brain

The human brain has trouble with dissonant music because the sounds create acoustic frequencies that interfere with each other. When people simultaneously hear several different audio components, their brains create a mathematical equation to interpret that information.

When someone hears a consonant chord, it’s a lot like a teacher telling you that 2 + 2 equals four.

You know that answer is correct when you see it. That causes the reward centers in the brain to fire a little because you’ve just had the satisfaction of confirming that something is “right.” It feels like the universe is clicking on all cylinders for that moment.

What if the teacher says that 2 + 2 equals five?

If you’re a young child who doesn’t know mathematics, you’d probably shrug and move on with your day. As we get older, the line between “right” and “wrong” becomes distinctive as we understand specific facts.

Many kids and adults would raise their hands to correct the equation. Even if you didn’t offer a public correction, your brain would think something along the lines of, “No – 2 + 2 equals four and always does.”

That’s the same way that the brain perceives consonance and dissonance chords. When you hear the latter, it feels like something isn’t right at a core level of your being.

Even when someone insists that there is nothing wrong with the sounds you hear, you know internally that this isn’t true because the reward centers in your brain don’t fire in the same way.

What Are Consonant Sounds?

A consonant sound is something that is composed of several different notes that sound good together when heard. Interval thirds and fifths are the most common combinations found in this category, although most major chords qualify.

Some people have preferences for one set of chords over another, even within the majors. When simple progressions occur in this category, you typically build from the major third and the perfect fifth above it to complete the sound.

You can also create a different bass note in those chords while maintaining the same progression.

When looking at the major chord with this structure, the major third is always four semitones from the root. The perfect fifth is seven semitones higher.

Depending on the instrument in question, you could continue going up to a seventh, ninth, eleventh, and more while maintaining the sounds that fire the reward centers in the brain.

If you’ve ever listened to “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty, you’ve heard a fantastic example of what music can sound like when the emphasis is on consonant sounds. The chording structure creates the hook that makes you want to keep listening to the composition.

What Are Minor Chords?

Minor chords don’t provide the cheery, almost bubble gum-style music that a consonant sound offers. That’s because they don’t have the same resolved nature, even though there is only a single note of difference between the two.

Minor chords sometimes qualify as dissonant music. It depends on the preferences of the listener and how they react to the sounds. Many people describe them as sounding pensive, morose, and even sad.

When a composer wants to convey a specific emotional response through their music, adding a minor chord often accomplishes that goal.

You’ll find them added with major chords because it creates a contrast for the listener to enjoy.

Many of the elements we have in life are built on contrasts between two extremes.

  • In stories, we have the protagonist and the antagonist working against each other.
  • When we choose foods, there are items we love and things we wouldn’t touch if paid to eat them.
  • Our clothing is filled with items we prefer, and we ignore the fashion choices that aren’t appealing.

The only difference between a major and a minor chord is that the minor third is only three semitones up from the root instead of four.

What Are Diminished Chords?

When diminished chords get added to a composition, you move closer toward the dissonant sound that makes the average listener uncomfortable. It’s not quite the same as someone running their nails across a chalkboard, but it gets pretty close to that experience for some people.

A diminished chord is created by having a minor third combined with a tritone. That means the perfect fifth gets dropped by a single semitone.

If you created a diminished chord with the root C, the minor third would be an E-flat because it’s three semitones above. The tritone would be an F-sharp (or notated as a G-flat) since it is six semitones above the root.

What Are Augmented Chords?

The most bothersome chords that people hear in music tend to come in this category. You’ll find some people who don’t mind (or even enjoy) the contrasts of a diminished chord in their music, but the unsettling nature of augmentation makes it bothersome.

This augmented chord is the rarest one used in musical compositions. It’s built like a simple major chord, but it raises the perfect fifth by a semitone. That means it combines a major third with a minor sixth to the root.

Using the Cmaj chord as an example here, you’d play an E and a G-sharp (or notated as an A-flat) to create the tone.

Why Do People Innately Stay Away from Dissonance Chords?

A dissonant chord doesn’t need to be a formal structure to create sounds that seem unnatural to some people. Even a simple combination of a C with a C-sharp is enough to create an aversion for many.

The reason why this happens is something that cognitive scientists, composers, and musicians have often wondered about in their work. One of the suggestions is that humans have a basic preference for consonance over dissonance because the brain prefers structure and organization.

When the audio frequencies clash, it feels like disorganized mathematics.

Others argue that dissonance is only a matter of convention, similar to the personal preference of listening to music with minor chords more often than having major ones.

The answer to this issue might exist in the world of brainwave entrainment. When someone hears sounds from two frequencies that are close, but not equal, to each other, they produce an effect that sounds like a “beat” or a “pulse.”

When this issue falls within a specific range, the result is more rapid, creating almost a rattling sound.

Those “rough” tones create unpleasant listening experiences when they’re unexpected. If you’re close to a piano that plays a dissonant chord, you can achieve the same effect as a brainwave entrainment recording.

Part of the Issue Might Be Psychological

Marion Cousineau works as a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. When she and her colleagues asked volunteers with amusia to rate a series of different intervals based on their personal definition of pleasantness, there were no distinctions between any of the sounds offered.

Amusia is an inability to reproduce, recognize, or detect musical tones. Most people refer to this condition as being tone-deaf. It can be present from birth or develop because of an injury. About four percent of the general population experiences this issue.

When people with normal hearing rated the same intervals as the volunteers with amusia, the ones with minor or major seconds and large sub-octave sevenths were noted as being unpleasant.

People with amusia typically experience receptive, clinical, or combined symptoms related to how they perceive music.

  • Receptive amusia is an inability to notice when notes are out of tune, read sheet music, or identify a familiar melody.
  • Clinical amusia is an inability to write music, sing, or play a musical instrument.
  • Combined (mixed) amusia can be a combination of symptoms from the other two.

Although the similarities between music and language are numerous, people with amusia don’t usually have trouble with reading and writing.

That’s why some researchers believe that the problem with dissonant music is a learned distaste for the clashing sounds. If that’s the case, what was once learned can be unlearned under the correct set of conditions.

Harmony Is More Important, Even with Clashing Sounds

When listening to rock music or any of its subgenres, the artists often include dissonance or roughness to create more depth to the composition. Why does an audience appreciate those efforts, but they don’t like them when it’s incorporated into less complex pieces?

The answer could have something to do with how we perceive harmony. When people listen to something with driven melodies and harmonies, the beating effect with dissonance is not as powerful. If you put on a set of stereo headphones and put a different frequency in each ear, you’ll have the rising and falling tones with different clicks or beats that can be relatively unpleasant.

Best Headphones for Listening to Music

When I want to listen to anything, I put on my set of Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. They deliver a Hi-Fi experience with a professional sound that works in almost any setting.

I have problems with the on-ear headphones because the compression can trigger a headache. That’s why I love the over-the-ear design of these headphones.

They work to create an isolated environment where I can focus on the sounds or music instead of the environment around me.

That’s not to say that they include a noise-cancellation feature with this set. I prefer having some of the environmental noise so that I’m aware of what is happening around me.

Another benefit of the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones is the oxygen-free copper cable. The design includes Kevlar reinforcement to ensure that minimal handling noise occurs during the listening experience.

When I’m working, I love how the headphones provide isochronic tones and background environments to help me stay focused.

If I’m listening to a favorite LP, the depth and clarity of each instrument and vocal shine with this Sennheiser design.

If you’re used to other headphones or earbuds, the signature Sennheiser veil can take you a little off-guard. The sounds are a touch darker than in competitive brands, providing more of an emphasis in the mids while recessing the highs. It’s an excellent soundstage that doesn’t let the bass tones overwhelm the composition.

Some people might worry about sound leakage, but it isn’t much of an issue for normal volume levels. Anything with an open-back design faces this risk, but the HD 600s do an excellent job of directing the sound to where you want it to be.

When you want to hear music in the exact way it was recorded, you’ll want the Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

Some additional models to consider other than the HD 600 include the following.

Do You Like Listening to Music with Dissonant Chords?

Dissonant chords provide unpleasant listening experiences for people with normal hearing ratings when the tones are separated from other music. It can be therapeutic to hear frequency gaps, especially for those who receive concentration benefits from brainwave entrainment products while using stereo headphones.

I discovered brainwave entrainment products on accident. I was looking for some entertainment options for a volunteer program I run, and the audio tracks popped up on the third page of the results.

When I listened to some of the items at first, I felt the same as most people about dissonance. It was bothersome to hear the clicking beats in my head.

After I discovered a program that included ocean waves and waterfall sounds, I knew that I’d found a tool that could help keep me focused. My production levels skyrocketed, especially with my favorite set of headphones on my ears.

Some people love dissonance, but it isn’t something that’s suitable for everyone. If you have issues with flashing or quick-moving lights and sequences on a television, you could experience a similar outcome with dissonant compositions.

If not, adding these chords to your listening experience can open a whole new world of music to enjoy.


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