More on Music and Cognitive Dissonance

In an earlier post I wrote briefly about research that suggests music helps us deal with cognitive dissonance. It seems to allow us to exist more comfortably in a (more or less inevitable) contradictory state. I was interested in how one use of music in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale worked in a very subtle way. It seemed pretty obvious, not subtle at all actually, that it was offering to harmonize someone’s thinking at a fraught moment, but it was less obvious whose thinking it was, and what problem it was solving.
      Studies of cognitive dissonance probably could add something to accounts of music in Shakespeare. I don’t think I am the person to do it at any length, because I don’t know enough about music in theory or in renaissance practice. But I do find myself with a few more things to say.


The revival scene in The Winter’s Tale is not the only one that includes music. Comparable moments of coming-back-to-life in Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and Pericles all have their accompaniments. Shakespeare’s most magical plays, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are both full of more and less harmonious tunes. There is clearly a relationship between music and wonder in which cognitive dissonance might be a thought-provoking psychological component. Scientific accounts of it could help us understand why the plays do what they do, but the scenes in turn provide richly developed instances of cognitive dissonance in action.


I would like to say something about two passages from very different plays where music seems to align with contradictory thinking. In Richard II, the king, in the process of being deposed, hears a mysterious melody (source unknown), and recognises that harmony and proportion are things he has lost. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia wants music to play while Bassanio chooses a casket. Perhaps the music will help him make the cognitively dissonant choice that he needs to make; perhaps the music helps her hold together the strange situation with its two extremely divergent outcomes.


Whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the .
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder’d string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke. (Richard II, 5.5)


Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music: that the comparison
May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream
And watery death-bed for him. He may win;
Then music is
Even as the flourish when true subjects bow
To a new-crowned monarch: such it is
As are those dulcet sounds in break of day
That creep into the dreaming bridegroom’s ear,
And summon him to marriage. (Merchant of Venice, 3.2)


What would be good music to play while Bassanio makes his choice? My previous post on music reveals the answer: Sigur Rós again. However, after listening to this Bassanio would go straight to the casket made of ice and lava.

This seems to take Perlovsky’s lines of argument (outlined in that earlier post) all the way inside. If cognitive dissonance is inevitable, and music is a way of mitigating it, then the ‘LIFE IS MUSIC’ metaphor seems to offer a way of holding oneself together. However, like other rich metaphors, it can turn on itself, extending into its own undoing.
Portia does not worry that traditionally different kinds of music would apply to the situations she imagines. It would have to be some tune to handle both (but see below). Music seems to provide a perfect metaphorical medium through which to explore and assuage her anxious state in this stunningly eloquent speech. Its consonance can manage the situation’s dissonance.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

1 thought on “More on Music and Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Rodney

    This is interesting, but note the lyrics of the song in The Merchant of Venice:

    Tell me where is fancy bred,
    Or in the heart, or in the head?
    How begot, how nourishèd?

    The usual interpretation is that all these words rhyme with “lead,” which is the desired casket.


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