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How dissonant is the augmented triad? Broyles, Joshua Clement

Abstract

Throughout the centuries, music theorists have consistently designated the augmented triad as dissonant, but not for entirely consistent reasons. In one interpretation of this "dissonant nature," an interpretation with which this thesis is concerned, the augmented triad is less harmonically "stable" than the major and minor triads in root position or in first inversion and, at most, only as stable as the second inversions of the major and minor triads. The various arguments against the stability of the augmented triad have largely been of the three basic types: acoustic/numerological, psychoacoustic/perceptual, and cognitive/tonal-syntactic. A small number of theorists, from very early on, have not been entirely committed to the intrinsic instability of the augmented triad as compared to major and minor triads. In recent decades research in music perception has drawn into question the absolute validity of this designation, but has stopped short of demonstrating specific conditions under which an augmented triad would actually be likely to sound more harmonically stable than a major or minor triad. This thesis documents a perceptual experiment and its results which statistically support the claim that conditions exist under which listeners may perceive an augmented triad as more harmonically stable than a major triad. These conditions are specific but they are not abnormal in twentieth-century music, and they are not totally absent in earlier Western music.

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