Some combinations of musical notes are consonant (pleasant), whereas others are dissonant (unpleasant), a distinction central to music. Explanations of consonance in terms of acoustics, auditory neuroscience, and enculturation have been debated for centuries [1-12]. We utilized individual differences to distinguish the candidate theories. We measured preferences for musical chords as well as nonmusical sounds that isolated particular acoustic factors - specifically, the beating and the harmonic relationships between frequency components, two factors that have long been thought to potentially underlie consonance [2, 3, 10, 13-20]. Listeners preferred stimuli without beats and with harmonic spectra, but across more than 250 subjects, only the preference for harmonic spectra was consistently correlated with preferences for consonant over dissonant chords. Harmonicity preferences were also correlated with the number of years subjects had spent playing a musical instrument, suggesting that exposure to music amplifies preferences for harmonic frequencies because of their musical importance. Harmonic spectra are prominent features of natural sounds, and our results indicate that they also underlie the perception of consonance.
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The authors thank Tom Bouchard, Peter Cariani, Ray Meddis, and Niels Waller for helpful discussions and Pascal Belin, Roland Fleming, Philip Johnson-Laird, Chris Plack, John Spiro, and Jonathan Winawer for comments on earlier drafts of the paper. This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH R01 DC 05216).