In my last post I raised the idea that the consonance of an interval is not just one thing, but has two distinct parts:
- The sensation created by the sound of the two notes played together — smooth or rough, pleasant or unpleasant
- The sense of stability of the note — does it feel restful, like it has arrived, or restless, unstable, like it “wants” to move?
I propose that #1 is correlated with the harmonic distance between the two notes of the interval, that is, the length of the solid lines that connect them on the lattice.
I think #2 is determined by the polarity of those connections, whether they consist of multiplying (stable) or dividing (unstable), or a combination of the two.
This suggests some experiments.
A mostly good rule in experiments is to change one thing at a time. The prime factors used in an interval’s ratio (3, 5 or 7) strongly affect the sound, so I’ll stick to one axis (x3), and only go in one direction (multiplying, overtonal, East).
This will all happen on the backbone of the lattice, the infinite horizontal line of fifths. The notes on this line are in Pythagorean tuning, which is any tuning that uses only 3 and 2 in its ratios. Pythagorean tuning is used in music, but many of the intervals are sharply dissonant, as we shall see.
If I’m right, according to #1 the notes should get rougher or more unpleasant as I go further from the center, and according to #2 there should be a sense of stability, that gets weaker as the tonal gravity field weakens with distance.
I’ll play all the notes against a drone, several octaves of the tonic. The notes will all be played in a single octave, in between two drone notes. I will octave reduce (divide by 2) as necessary, to put all the notes in this octave.
The first interval is a perfect fifth. To get this, you multiply the frequency of the tonic by 3.
No denying it, this is a consonant interval. Only the drone sounds smoother. It sounds stable too, as it should according to #2. If a song ends like this, I’m perfectly satisfied.
Next note up is the 2. This is two perfect fifths, a factor of 9.
To my ears, this note is still quite consonant. And yes, it still sounds stable. Lots of songs end on this note — I feel wistfulness, gentle yearning, perhaps a sweet sadness, but I don’t feel a powerful need for the note to change.
Next is 3x3x3, the Pythagorean sixth or 6+. I still hear this one as consonant, but just barely. For me the pattern continues — the 6+ is right on the edge of dissonance, and stable, but more weakly. I could hear it resolving down to the 5, but the urge is not strong.
Now 3x3x3x3, the 3+, Pythagorean major third.
I don’t think there’s much disagreement that this is a dissonant note. This major third is 22 cents, an entire comma, sharper than the sweet 5/4 third that appears as “3” on the lattice. It’s has the sharpness of the equal tempered third, on steroids.
For me, the major third is the Achilles Heel of Pythagorean tuning. Any tuning with dissonant major chords is going to be of limited usefulness. I’d go nuts if all songs ended on this note.
Yep, ugly. But still feels somewhat stable. Next?
Ow! And the stability is very weak now; I’d be fine with this note resolving to the 1.
Keep going! Next up is a suitably obnoxious tritone, a version of the good old Devil’s Interval. To my ear, the stability is now lost, and actually the dissonance itself is less profound than it is with the 3+ and the 7+. Tonal gravity is very weak here in the outer solar system.
Just for fun, here are the notes in reverse order. You can hear them coming back to consonance and stability.
To my ear, this experiment supports the idea that more harmonic distance equals more dissonance. The sheer obnoxiousness does seem to fade a bit past the major third or major seventh. I’d say that both consonance and dissonance get weaker as the note gets farther from the center. The ear seems to have less signal to work with as the tonal gravity field weakens.
Next: Polarity Experiment