The Hard Problem of Consonance and Its Place in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




This project focuses on the property of consonance, broadly defined as a property possessed by musical intervals—two pitches sounding simultaneously—in virtue of which a listener perceives them as pleasant sounding. The first three sections of the dissertation discuss the way this property was understood by key seventeenth-century theorists: René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, and Johannes Kepler. This historical portion establishes the role consonance played in forming the philosophical ideology of the period, which has been largely overlooked by theorists. The status of music theory as a mathematical science in this period made consonance a key issue, alongside other topics like those in mechanical physics. The final section updates the discussion and focuses on how consonance has been treated recently. This section proposes a new conception of consonance characterized by the complexity of the stimulus, which will allow a better articulation of current intuitions about this property.