Music and Cognitive Dissonance

* Leonid Perlovsky, ‘Musical Emotions: Functions, Origin, Evolution’, Physics of Life Reviews, 7 (2010), 2-27.
* Nobuo Masataka and Leonid Perlovsky, ‘The Efficacy of Musical Emotions Provoked by Mozart’s Music for the Reconciliation of Cognitive Dissonance’, Nature Scientific Reports, 2, 694: DOI:10.1038/srep00694 (2012).
* Leonid Perlovsky, Arnaud Cabanac, Marie-Claude Bonniot-Cabanac, Michel Cabanac, ‘Mozart Effect, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Pleasure of Music’, Behavioural Brain Research, 244 (2013), 9-14.
* Nobuo Masataka and Leonid Perlovsky, ‘Cognitive Interference Can Be Mitigated by Consonant Music and Facilitated by Dissonant Music’, Nature Scientific Reports, 3, 2028: DOI:10.1038/srep02028 (2013).

I gave a paper in Edinburgh last week about social cognition in renaissance plays. I was interested in how characters cooperate (with the collaboration of the audience, and of course the actors) to see the world in new and strange ways. I didn’t have time to bring in one little strand of reading I’d been doing about , so I thought I’d post about it.
      In the articles listed above Perlovsky and his collaborators assemble an intriguing set of results and hypotheses about the role of music in human cognition and evolution. They suggest that music helps with cognitive dissonance, and the universality of music in human cultures is explained by its role in . Once our thoughts became complex, we needed to evolve ways of handling the contradictions which inevitably arose from complexity: music, they say, is one of these ways.


The suggestiveness of music as a way of limiting the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance in literature, and especially drama, is pretty obvious. Incidental tunes are not incidental. In The Winter’s Tale Paulina says ‘Music, awake her, strike!’ when Hermione’s statue is supposed to come to life. The interesting thing to me is not that this might help the audience or any of the characters through the . The interesting thing is that the music is transparently doing this, but as a member of the audience I am not sure who is being deceived or mollified. Is it Leontes, or is it me? If both, are we being helped through the same problem, and what is the significance of any differences?

This is the mental discomfort caused by having to reconcile conflicting thoughts. Much of the research focuses on how we mitigate this dissonance. For example, when forced to make a choice between two equal things, we later find reasons to prefer the thing we chose, and disparage the thing we didn’t.
In the ‘cognitive interference’ experiment, music helps us sort out (for example) the challenge of recognising the colour meant by the word ‘green’ when the word is written in red ink. In the dissonance experiments, music can be shown to reduce a tendency to disparage an item we have rejected in favour of an equally desirable item we have been forced to choose.
I am watching a statue come to life, but statues do not come back to life; I am watching this as if it is a statue but within the fiction it is probable, and soon after clear enough, that it is not a statue at all; and that’s just the beginning.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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