Consonance and dissonance of musical chords: Neural correlates in auditory cortex of monkeys and humans

Yonatan I. Fishman, Igor O. Volkov, M. Daniel Noh, P. Charles Garell, Hans Bakken, Joseph C. Arezzo, Matthew A. Howard, Mitchell Steinschneider

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


Some musical chords sound pleasant, or consonant, while others sound unpleasant, or dissonant, Helmholtz's psychoacoustic theory of consonance and dissonance attributes the perception of dissonance to the sensation of "beats" and "roughness" caused by interactions in the auditory periphery between adjacent partials of complex tones comprising a musical chord. Conversely, consonance is characterized by the relative absence of beats and roughness. Physiological studies in monkeys suggest that roughness may be represented in primary auditory cortex (A1) by oscillatory neuronal ensemble responses phase-locked to the amplitude-modulated temporal envelope of complex sounds. However, it remains unknown whether phase-locked responses also underlie the representation of dissonance in auditory cortex. In the present study, responses evoked by musical chords with varying degrees of consonance and dissonance were recorded in A1 of awake macaques and evaluated using auditory-evoked potential (AEP), multiunit activity (MUA), and current-source density (CSD) techniques. In parallel studies, intracranial AEPs evoked by the same musical chords were recorded directly from the auditory cortex of two human subjects undergoing surgical evaluation for medically intractable epilepsy. Chords were composed of two simultaneous harmonic complex tones. The magnitude of oscillatory phase-locked activity in A1 of the monkey correlates with the perceived dissonance of the musical chords. Responses evoked by dissonant chords, such as minor and major seconds, display oscillations phase-locked to the predicted difference frequencies, whereas responses evoked by consonant chords, such as octaves and perfect fifths, display little or no phase-locked activity. AEPs recorded in Heschl's gyrus display strikingly similar oscillatory patterns to those observed in monkey A1, with dissonant chords eliciting greater phase-locked activity than consonant chords. In contrast to recordings in Heschl's gyrus, AEPs recorded in the planum temporale do not display significant phase-locked activity, suggesting functional differentiation of auditory cortical regions in humans. These findings support the relevance of synchronous phase-locked neural ensemble activity in A1 for the physiological representation of sensory dissonance in humans and highlight the merits of complementary monkey/human studies in the investigation of neural substrates underlying auditory perception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2761-2788
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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