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Especially in pop music (or baroque music), chord progressions play a key role in music. Popular chord progressions include (I,III,VI,V), as well as popular cadence progressions like (I,IV,I64,V,I) are attractive and sound pleasant to the ear. On the other hand, chord progressions like (I,III,II,IV,I) or a cadence progression like (I,VI,II,I) do not sound as pleasant to the ear or sound complete.

While intervals like the perfect fifth sound pleasant due to sound waves matching up, what is the science behind chord progressions that sound pleasant vs. unpleasant, or is this just due to random personal preference?

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    IMO, comments like "attractive and sound pleasant" are mostly value judgements based on someone's personal musical experience. Personally I would call your two chord sequence examples "boring clichés" not "attractive and pleasant sounding!". This is "attractive" and certainly "complete" (but note, it's only the last few minutes of a piece that last for more than 8 hours in total!) youtube.com/watch?v=eD4MY3rmrXI
    – user19146
    Apr 21, 2017 at 20:58
  • Why is there any requirement that music should sound "attractive" or "pleasant?" - unless its only function is to be "background noise", like elevator music for example.
    – user19146
    Apr 21, 2017 at 21:05
  • The science is music theory, good old harmony and counterpoint. It is also covered by psycho-acoustics. It is largely a matter of mathematics.
    – PeterJ
    Mar 3, 2019 at 12:28

3 Answers 3

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I would argue that there is little acoustical science behind whether a chord progression is pleasant or not. Two other considerations may easily overpower what acoustical effects exist. One is just cultural preference; some cultures (or sub-cultures within another tradition) prefer certain types of patterns. In other cases, especially where music is used to support drama (opera, movies, video games), one may prefer a "bad-sounding" (not just dissonant) passage to illustrate the action (or to describe what isn't easily shown visually.)

There is personal preference, but it's more cultural (or learned) than random. Of course, this is only my opinion.

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  • Some acoustic-psychological studies seem to show that some sounds are considered better or worse sounding. Think fingernails on a black board. Very loud sounds can be painful. Think 200+Db fingernails on a blackboard (which is used as an anti-terrorism weapon.) Helmholtz's book discusses some ideas from a very old perspective.
    – ttw
    Apr 21, 2017 at 20:31
  • Music is art not science. Music theory and acoustics provide us descriptive terminology. But, I too feel these shouldn't be relied on too heavily to explain aesthetics. Apr 22, 2017 at 3:04
  • But then this leads o to an even more fundamental question. As a composer, how does my brain work when I compose? - how does the brain produce "art"? Apr 22, 2017 at 17:32
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I would get past trying to nail this down to science. Pleasant sounds you hear from a I-IV-V may not be as pleasant to somebody else. In music there are rules with a science underlying (the sound waves and how they travel and levels among the frequencies that are sounded...), but it is the rules that dictate how music is composed. Not the underlying science. We mostly follow the rules and sometimes we break away. In fact, many times we break away but still follow some rules. An example I can think of is the harmony technique of creating a verse or bridge progression that stems from the V, iii, or IV in the original key. Breaking away but with some guidelines to doing so. That is the craft and artistic side of music.

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There's definitely some interesting attempts to tackle a harmony more from a physics point of view. For example:

https://arxiv.org/html/1202.4212v1

There's no need to deny either physical (absolute) or cultural (relative) influences on our perception of nice versus harsh. They can coexist.

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