The last time I wrote about beat frequencies and harmonies, it was in praise of the smooth consonance of Deep Dark Wood’s Sugar Mama. It’s a song with sweet pleasing harmony and one of my favourite soul soothers to turn to when I need a few moments of calm escape. Today I’m feeling all about the opposite: a Song of the Week in praise of dissonance!
Eric’s Trip represent a touchstone band in Canadian indie rock, in particular of the lo-fi variety. If I may wax poetic, they were for many young music lovers of the early 1990s (yours truly included) a first realization that good music didn’t have to come from somewhere far away and exotic. It could be made by regular kids from regular places (in this case Moncton, New Brunswick) and still be deep, challenging and moving.
They and their lo-fi contemporaries relied on inspiration from greats like Neil Young, to challenge listeners definitions about what made music good. They usually used heavily distorted guitars, simple song structures, crackly and messy recording techniques and, significantly, often dissonant harmonies and vocals. As can be heard here in View Master, from their 1994 release Forever Again, there was an uneasy mismatch between the instrumental and vocal sounds and deliberately close harmonies that can be unnerving. I quickly learned from trying to convert friends with my lo-fi enthusiasm, though, that some people are more likely to see this as something other than deliberately challenging music. Responses such as “Um, can’t they find a different singer?” were common. Needless to say, I disagreed.
Today in NatureNews is a description of researchers who are trying to figure out why.* Like physicist and early dissonance researcher Hermann von Helmholtz, they were concerned with trying to figure out how to explain what exactly sounds so disturbing about dissonant combinations. Like him, they understood that one of the issues is the roughness created by dissonant sounds: the beat frequencies that can be heard when two mismatched tones are sounded at once. They started by comparing those with regular musical hearing to those with amusia (the inability to differentiate between musical tones). The found that both groups could hear and were disturbed by beat frequencies. When they asked them to rate the pleasantness of various combinations of sounds, though, the two groups differed. Even though they could both hear beat frequencies, the amusic participants rated the pleasantness mostly equally over all note combinations, while the control participants showed the expected preferences for known consonant intervals.
Okay so I lied a bit, this doesn’t really answer why some people can hear dissonance but actually enjoy the eeriness and unsettling feeling while others prefer to avoid it. It is cool to know though that there is more to it than beat frequencies. At Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog, Colin Schultz has tried to look a bit further into what the connections might be to heavy metal music and the social commentary that is built into deliberately difficult music. I think the same idea applies to Eric’s Trip: What does it mean for music to be good? What are the essential elements of conveying emotion through a pop song? Listening to this it’s clear that prettiness and consonance is definitely not necessary, and sometimes not even wanted.
*Their paper appears in the November 12, 2012 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cousineau, M., McDermott, J. H. & Peretz, I. (2012). The basis of musical consonance as revealed by congenital amusia. PNAS, 109(46), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207989109