ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (4): 817-833.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00817

• Regular Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Why musical emotion can be induced by harmony? The effect and cognitive mechanism of musical consonance

ZHANG Hang1, MENG Le1, ZHANG Jijia2()   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, Renmin University of China, Beijing 110872, China
    2Faculty of Education, Guangxi Normal University, Guilin 541004, China
  • Received:2021-04-17 Online:2022-04-15 Published:2022-02-22


Music has a significant and far-reaching impact on human society. Archaeological evidence shows that music first emerged at least 3.5 billion years (Paleolithic Period) ago. Such evidence is an important indication that humans have the advanced capacity to process complex auditory information. Musicology has gradually formed a relatively complete theoretical system. However, it still has several fundamental problems in the theory and practice of modern music, such as the rationale for simultaneous consonance. The core of this problem is how our brain possesses musical chords composed of several tones and why some tone combinations sound relatively pleasant (consonance) while others sound unpleasant (dissonance). This question has fascinated scholars since the ancient Greeks. Physicists have been trying to find answers to the differences between acoustic features of consonance and dissonance harmony. Biologists argue that consonance perception is the basic emotional experience evoked by sound events in the auditory system. Psychologists are more inclined to examine whether musical consonance perception is nature or nurture. Such different content of disciplines can be summarized from three perspectives: 1) Emphasize the physical acoustics of musical stimulation. It is considered that certain acoustic characteristics cause a particular chord to be perceived as consonant, for instance, the simplicity of the fundamental frequency ratios of combined tones. Therefore, many theoretical explanations of musical consonance in mathematical physics had been advocated. 2) Emphasize the physiological or psychological basis of music processing, holding the sense of consonance is the basic emotional experience. For example, Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that the roughness (dissonant experience) is often generated by the dissonant intervals which contain frequency components that are too closely spaced to be resolved by the auditory system. Therefore, many biologists advocate for using physiological acoustics and psychoacoustics methods to reveal this universal processing mechanism. Both of the two theories consider the perception of music consonance is an innate ability of human being. 3) Emphasize the roles of culture aspects, arguing the musical cultural exposure and music training significantly affect consonance perception. This article reviews these empirical researches from various disciplines to analyze the basis of musical consonance and to systematically sorts out the theoretical debates going on for centuries. We also proposed that nature and nurture interact to shape how we experience musical consonance.

Although musical consonance has been researched mainly using western theoretical perspectives, studying musical consonance in Chinese traditional music culture is urgently needed. Music is an advanced activity of human cognition and one of the universal ways of emotional expression in life. As the core element connecting music and emotion, the rationale for simultaneous consonance is still unsolved. We hope our work will facilitate further empirical research on musical consonance, especially in Chinese traditional music culture.

Key words: musical consonance, harmonicity, beating, musical culture, cognitive mechanism

CLC Number: