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Thread: Why are certain chords/interval pleasant?

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  1. #1
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    Why are certain chords/intervals pleasant?

    Greetings! New here on the forum.

    I have a life long interest in music, and for a while i've felt the need to take a (deep) dive into music theory.

    Right now i am trying to wrap my head around the phenomenology of consonance/dissonance. More specifically i'm trying to understand why certain chords/harmonies are more pleasant than others to an individual (I'm not trying to make any sort of universal claims regarding what's pleasant). Since i don't have any formal education i'd really appreciate input from others.

    As far as i understand this far consonance, dissonance and how we perceive these as pleasant or not depends on several factors:
    - The relationship between physical frequencies, i. e. pitch ratios
    - Subjectivity (or taste for lack of better words), in turn depending on
    - Tradition, repetition, familiarity and/or habit

    I assume there is more to add to the equation, so more elaboration or input would be really appreciated... Let me know what you think!
    Last edited by Ensittaren; 04-14-2017 at 02:31 PM.

  2. #2
    MMus, MA, PGCE JumpingJack's Avatar
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    You basically answered your own question.

    You might as well ask, why do some people like the colour red while others prefer blue?
    Why do some people like rugby while others prefer cricket?
    Why do some like really spicy food and others don't?

    It depends on a number of things, as you said, tradition, familiarity etc. Usually to do with culture and things you might have experienced growing up.
    Someone growing up listening to Mozart will undoubtedly have different tastes from someone who listened to Schoenberg, or Miles Davis, or Ravi Shankar etc.

    Through experience, people become accustomed to certain things and accept them as normal (good/bad, right/wrong). Much like language and dozens of cultural traits which most people take for granted without thinking about. This isn't specific to music theory (you can read all sorts of details about acoustics and how sound works, but ultimately, the reason why one thing is preferred over another is to do with taste).

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    Quote Originally Posted by JumpingJack View Post
    You basically answered your own question.

    You might as well ask, why do some people like the colour red while others prefer blue?
    Why do some people like rugby while others prefer cricket?
    Why do some like really spicy food and others don't?

    It depends on a number of things, as you said, tradition, familiarity etc. Usually to do with culture and things you might have experienced growing up.
    Someone growing up listening to Mozart will undoubtedly have different tastes from someone who listened to Schoenberg, or Miles Davis, or Ravi Shankar etc.

    Through experience, people become accustomed to certain things and accept them as normal (good/bad, right/wrong). Much like language and dozens of cultural traits which most people take for granted without thinking about. This isn't specific to music theory (you can read all sorts of details about acoustics and how sound works, but ultimately, the reason why one thing is preferred over another is to do with taste).
    Fair enough. I realize you can ask the same type of questions like the examples above, and again i think sometimes it's interesting to look closer at these preferences. On a related note (no pun intended), chord functions or keys are sometimes described as having inherent qualities with concepts like conveying a sense of being home, away or being melancholic. It makes me curious about the reasoning behind how they're perceived. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. #4
    MMus, MA, PGCE JumpingJack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ensittaren View Post
    On a related note (no pun intended), chord functions or keys are sometimes described as having inherent qualities with concepts like conveying a sense of being home, away or being melancholic. It makes me curious about the reasoning behind how they're perceived. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Mostly association.
    Throughout history people have come up with lists of emotions or affects associated with certain musical phenomena. This goes way back before tonality was established, people used to list the qualities associated with certain modes. But it was never scientific. Some people copied thing from earlier writers (such as humanists evoking what they thought was Greek theory), but other opinions differed widely. What we now call The Phrygian Mode for example was described by Scipione Cerreto in 1601 as "pleasing and cheerful" whereas Zarlino in 1558 said it "moves one to weeping".

    Now, with equal temperament, there is no objective reason why one major key should sound any different than any other major key (all other things being equal). You've probably heard how major keys tend to sound happy whereas minor keys tend to sound sad... Obviously this is both a generalisation and a gross simplification but true enough for people who have grown up with such associations (again, all other things being equal). There are however numerous other factors at work in how things sound; pitch, tempo, instrumentation and so on. And people from cultures that don't use - and therefore aren't accustomed - to major/minor keys won't necessarily have the same impressions.

    The diminished seventh chord is almost a cliché now for horror - you can almost imagine an old black and white film with the damsel in distress being abducted by the evil vampire... It's association; the aural equivalent of broomsticks and cobwebs at halloween. It's not about the intrinsic qualities of the things themselves but what connotations they have within our shared cultural environment.

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    Well, here's one example: a half diminished 7th chord isn't exactly unpleasant, but i wouldn't consider it pleasant either. As far as i understand, one could argue this is due to it's dissonant and/or unresolved quality. Or to put in a more objective perspective, the frequencies that make up the chord are more complex and therefore more dissonant compared to a chord consisting of less complex, harmonic intervals. (I hope that definition was coherent enough).

    In contrast, a chord (which, to my knowledge doesn't a have a specific name) that is pleasant to me is this one, built on intervals of perfect fours: T, P4, m7, m10.

    Thing is, the last chord could probably also be described as dissonant, so this far in an analysis it's not very different from the previous one.

    I believe what makes the last one interesting is partly because it's a fairly new discovery (for me). Pleasant in this case would be the novelty aspect, so i guess i should add it to the list above. Thanks for your question, it made me more aware of this.

    This is turning into a monologue... Does it make sense at all?

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