The source dilemma: Perceptual coherence and the continuum of consonance-dissonance


  • Tanor Bonin University of Waterloo
  • Daniel Smilek University of Waterloo


The first author’s past research demonstrated that consonance and dissonance can be modulated through psychoacoustic manipulations that influence the perceptual coherence of musical sounds. These data led to the source dilemma hypothesis, which predicts dissonance to arise from musical stimuli that produce incoherent auditory percepts and consonance to arise from those that produce coherent auditory percepts. In the present studies we sought to replicate the effects of perceptual coherence on consonance and dissonance. Additionally, we investigated a corollary prediction that dissonant music, entailing greater perceptual incoherence, produces greater cognitive interference than consonant music. We tested these predictions with three experiments, in which harmonic, timbral, and spatial psychoacoustic parameters were differentially manipulated to create coherent and incoherent musical counterparts. In each experiment, participants completed a cognitively demanding task (the visual 2-back task) while listening concurrently to no music, coherent music, or incoherent music. Participants then provided consonancedissonance and pleasantness-unpleasantness ratings of each of the musical excerpts. Consistent with the source dilemma hypothesis, we replicated our previous findings that perceptual coherence predicted the listeners’ experience of consonance and dissonance. Additionally, we found in Experiment 1 that incoherent atonal music interfered to a greater extent with cognitive processing of the 2-back task than did coherent tonal music. Surprisingly, however, in Experiments 2 and 3 we found that atonal musics exhibiting timbral and spatial coherence produced greater cognitive interference than did their incoherent atonal counterparts, despite the fact that they were rated as less dissonant and less unpleasant.

Author Biographies

Tanor Bonin, University of Waterloo

Department of Psychology

Daniel Smilek, University of Waterloo

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology




How to Cite

Bonin T, Smilek D. The source dilemma: Perceptual coherence and the continuum of consonance-dissonance. Canadian Acoustics [Internet]. 2015 Sep. 8 [cited 2021 Oct. 20];43(3). Available from:



Proceedings of the Acoustics Week in Canada