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The Psychoacoustics of Harmony Perception

Centuries after three-part harmony entered Western music, research is starting to clarify why different chords sound tense or resolved, cheerful or melancholy

Norman D. Cook, Takefumi Hayashi

Figure%201.%20Barbershop%20quartetClick to Enlarge ImageThe perception of harmony and dissonance is universal to all cultures. Stable or unstable combinations of tones evoke the very same feelings in people who have never heard "western" music as they do for those of us who grew up on a diet of Mozart, Sondheim or The Beatles. The reason for this common perception, according to Cook, is that the major or minor modality of musical chords is a direct consequence of the complex waveform of these pitch combinations. A recently clarified understanding of the factors that contribute to the sense of harmony makes it possible to describe the relation between acoustics and evoked emotions without using the arcane vocabulary of traditional music theory.

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