Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is Musical Dissonance Universal?

I've often wondered about whether there is such a thing as a universally-recognized dissonant or harmonious musical interval. For example, Westerners seem to regard diminished fifth intervals as dissonant and tension-building (famous example: the Mars movement of Holst's The Planets). And indeed, six half-steps up a heptatonic scale, the ratio is the most destructively interferent, with a frequency that's an irrational ratio of the square root of two relative to the tonal. So what? It's not clear (to me at least) why that should sound "special" universally to all humans. Do Bushmen find it equally "tense"?

This interval has a history in the West. In the Middle Ages, Europeans weren't allowed to play this interval (the dreaded tritone) for fear that it would summon the devil, and regardless of the whether this interval represents a universal, surely today we're somewhat influenced by this antecdent. Okay - where did they get it from? A colleague of mine once threw out the idea that maybe a diminished fifth sounds like an animal in pain. Okay - so why does an animal in pain make diminished fifth-sounds? Do we have examples of scared or injured animals making such sounds? Universals based on physics that we understand today as semantically-gifted primates are usually not nearly as universal as we think they are, even within our species. The conservative position is to assume until proven otherwise that our associations with culturally institutions are just that - associations, programmed by experience.

This is why the following is so interesting.

(For the musically-challenged, compare to the Mars movement.)

Taking the starting and ending tones as the tonal, the high "note" that the wolf holds is a diminished fifth (compare to Mars Assuming the description is accurate and this is a wolf separated from its pack and trying to locate them, it's worth noting that a wolf under some stress tries to get other wolves' attention by using a diminished fifth interval. Note that wolves and other canines have a studied repertoire known "words", certainly not as plastic as the way humans use language, but nonetheless specific vocalizations that are repeated in the same contexts (separated from pack, just caught small game, get out of our territory, etc.)

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