In traditional harmony, I have heard the word "sonority" used sometimes freely in a way to describe harmonic structures or harmonic systems. However, in my experience the word was used somewhat flexibly to describe any harmonic structure, express or implied, including a single stacked chord, an agglomeration of notes, (a chord fitting the definition of standard practice chord) and also perhaps even including other combinations of notes which, though not fitting the definition of a chord recognized in traditional harmony, would nonetheless form a system of harmony. In contemporary harmony they might be called a "chord scale", or perhaps contemporary harmony allows so many types of chords that any set of notes fits the definition.

What is the usage of the word "sonority" in the history of music, and does it have a proper definition?

7 Answers 7


I generally hear composers and theorists use traditional terms like "chord" when discussing triads, seventh chords, ninth chords -- harmonic structures built on thirds -- and their inversions. But as chords become more complex -- for example bitonality such as one might hear from Stravinsky, or the use of even higher overtones to create eleventh and thirteenth chords -- they tend to switch to the word "sonority." My inference from their usage is that the "sound" of the vertical simultaneity stops having the implications of functional harmony, wherein each note in the chord has tendencies to lead to adjacent diatonic notes, and becomes instead more of a timbral appeal. This, even when the notes are equally-tempered, but more so as non-harmonic overtones and tunings come into play (as in soundmass, Klangtone, and outright non-harmonic sounds like bells). Of course, new music has its own references such as "cluster" (simultaneous adjacent tones) and "cloud" (non-simultaneous aperiodic textures made up of a multiplicity of unrelated tones). I think of those as special cases of the more generic "sonority."


Unfortunately this is not a specific answer... From the concepts below I have tried to illustrate interesting insights about the "multi colored" nature of this term and hence give a better understanding of what it may mean in different contexts...

Unfortunately, the word "sonority" (like many musical terms) developed a lot of artistic baggage as it was used to describe similar (but different) things during the evolution of western music. Conservatories are divided with strong partitions (ivory towers) between their departments. Each department has a different artistic vision. These visions sometimes play out together as pedagogic feuds, (that is a good thing ;-) but most of the time everyone keeps to their comfortable inner circles... (and so the musical definitions get fragmented even farther)

If your are looking for the definition of a term, you need to first think about context. What kind of music and style are you trying to describe? For instance, the term "mode" means one thing to a jazz musician, but to a scholar of medieval and renaissance music it would mean something completely different! (painful personal experience taught me that lesson ;-)

Being a composer, my kind of mathematical base definition of "sonority" would be:

"The psycho-acoustic perception of a collection of 2 or more individual tones (frequencies or pitches) sounding together, with all pitches having only simple harmonic relationships (ratios) with each other, the result of which mimics the sound of a single fundamental pitch sounding alone"

The "perceived tone" in my above definition would actually be the root fundamental harmonic of the entire collection of pitches sounding together... Instead of hearing a chord, if it is simple enough (i.e., sonorous) your mind wants to simplify it to a single "root" note (with a pleasant tonal color).

This is a side track but btw, there is no such thing as one single note... Our brains trick us... All musical instruments produce notes (tones) that contain harmonics (pure notes that sound all by themselves). Even a really precision HP sine wave signal generator produces very faint stray harmonics (called distortion in that case.. ha ha.. engineers call mother nature bad names). Once released into an acoustic space, that same single HP generated sine tone hits things as it travels to your ears and breaks up into other sine waves producing more "tones" (just as ripples in a pool of water can break up into multiple overlapping waves).

Our brains trick us into "hearing" sound as one note (with a characteristic tone). A flute playing A440 sounds much different than a clarinet playing the same note... Piano tuners learn how to selectively listen to these individual harmonics as separate tones. Only a few of us were born with that ability though. Most of us hear sound as a collective "sonority" oops! another use of that elusive term... ;-)

The above two paragraphs are a related topic (in reverse) but OK... back to main topic now...

My definition of the word sonority above is my own based heavily on my artistic style(s), but if you are a blues musician you would have a completely different view! For blues the I chord, is a dominant 7th chord. In fact the entire I-IV-V-I blues progression is all dominant 7th chords!

So to a blues musician a sonorous chord could be G7 (in the key of G major)! Yes! The 3rd & flat 7th chord members form a tritone interval which many a theorist would say is not sonorous at all but the most dissonant of all possible combinations! (to each his own) Country blues singers sing that stuff in microtones which stretches our understanding of what sonority means even farther out!

Now, do you see the problem about this and many other musical terms? I think this confusion is beautiful... That is how new art is discovered!

Artistic concepts are heavily influenced by changing human taste or fashion... The nature of music is mathematical however so someone knowledgeable in psychology/cognition and music theory might try to nail down a general definition (like I did above for me). Unfortunately that won't change common usage of the word in all those different cultural settings... Only collective life experiences can do that... Such is life...

I guess my answer does not help much.. eh? lol I hope it makes this discussion more interesting and helps to expand our musical consciousness!


"Sonority" is synonymous with "chord". I agree with your impression that it is used freely to describe any chord/harmony. Surprisingly, I cannot find a good reference to back this up on the web. I believe sonority implies that the notes are sounding simultaneously (i.e. vertically stacked). I cannot completely answer your question as I do not know this historical etymology, so I can only say how it is currently used. The current definition probably goes back at least 50 if not 100+ years.

A chord, by the way, is any collection of 3 or more notes.

  • Any collection? Even if its a unison? Aug 10, 2014 at 19:38
  • I'm sure some technocrats would disagree but I would say no, unisons and octaves don't count towards the three requisite notes to create a sonority. This is opinion though. Aug 10, 2014 at 19:56
  • right. So they have to be 3 different pitch classes. Aug 11, 2014 at 0:29
  • Some people I know would define a diad as a chord as well. At least in modern vernacular, we use the expression "power chord" to mean just two notes. And other people I know would not call three pitches a chord if there is no known chord symbol for it. For instance, C, C# and D. What is that? Csus2(b9, omit5)? ;)
    – Grey
    Aug 11, 2014 at 8:46
  • @Grey I think that particular example C-C#-D would be called a "cluster". With regard to chords and triads vs intervals: one can perform harmonic analysis on duets and solos. So even if no triads are played, the piece can certainly imply a harmony, and to talk about that harmony we can talk about "chords" even though they aren't literally played. Aug 11, 2014 at 19:11

I have come across the word "sonority" as an expressive instruction on flute music by French composers such as Phillip Gaubert. How does a word used to describe chordal harmonics translate to playing notes on a single note instrument like the flute? I teach private lessons and I have a hard time explaining a word like this that doesn't have an understandable definition. Through my research the context of its use leads me to believe that the word is describing the expectation of producing a pure sound. Am I on the right track?


"Sonority" just means "sound". Musicians may use the word in different ways in different contexts. But it generally boils down to just meaning "sound".


Yes it means 'sound' as in a 'major sonority' a 'minor sonority'

  • 3
    Welcome! A lot of answers here that are deemed good are regarded as such because they provide more that merely the bare answer. A bit of history, some examples, etc. Then your answer would improve!
    – Tim
    Oct 28, 2018 at 9:11

When I use the word it means "group of tones". I usually use it when describing a group of pitches that seems to be larger than life in some way; a sound that I really don't feel should be described as a chord. I'm a professional composer.

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