Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cognitive Consonance

When you listen to music that you love something special happens in your brain. The sounds and harmonies come together to create pleasure, to be sure, but you don’t love the resolution.

Yes the resolution of a song is great. The moment when it all comes together and lines up in perfect harmony sounds very nice. But the research shows that what we really enjoy is the moment just before the resolution. When all the tension and all the pent-up movement is at its peak, that’s the moment we love music.

Dissonance, cognitive or otherwise, is a state of unrest. It’s clashing, frustrating, unsettling agitation. It’s a sliver in your palm that you feel with every subtle movement that keeps you constantly moving.

King David had a rough life sometimes. Sure he had the moments when he was king over Israel and he got to enjoy his life, but it seems that he had many more moments where he was on the run for his life or hiding from his enemies. David also liked to write music. He wrote many of the psalms in the bible, one of the more famous is the 22nd psalm.

It starts out with the words that Jesus said: “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”

The moment of dissonance in a song calls out for a resolution but it’s not there yet. If you think of the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or the ABCs song if you want something different). The first phrase of the song ends in expectation. It calls out for something more. If you just sang the first line it would feel incomplete. But once you finish (“How I wonder what you are.”), the resolution is there and the song is at rest. You could just stop and be okay.

The story goes that Beethoven’s wife would get so annoyed with him sleeping late that she would go to the piano and play seven notes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti… Then she would stop. Beethoven needed the resolution, he needed the notes to return to Do, so badly that it got him out of bed and to the piano to play that one resolving note.

David started out Psalm 22 with a lament. He started with dissonance. He quested where God was in his life. He doubted God’s presence. He was scared, alone, frustrated, and confused. So he wrote a song about it. It told God how he felt.

Spoiler alert: David didn’t feel great. He reminded God of the past and then questioned why God wasn’t doing that today. He told God about all his struggles and wondered where God was in the midst of them. But then something started to happen. Toward the end of the song something shifted.

When we’re listening to music the moment of dissonance is only really pleasurable when we know it’s going to resolve. In our favorite pieces, the ones we listen to over and over again, we anticipate the resolution. Our brains know what’s going to happen so they let us enjoy the conflict. It doesn’t work the same way in a song you’ve never heard or in a song that never resolves.

Jazz is music based on improvisation and dissonance. The basic idea is that you take a song that everyone knows and then you change it. You riff on it to make something new. You create new points of dissonance and different resolutions. We still have the familiarity with the original piece, but we get to experience the conflict and resolution in different ways.

David kept recounting all the ways that God had been faithful in the past and he started to see God’s faithfulness to him, even in the midst of his trouble. He remembered the past resolutions; he recognized the theme and he started to anticipate the resolution coming.

From the song that started out with the dissonance of feeling forsaken, David moves to singing: “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him!” (Ps. 22.22-3).

When we encounter cognitive dissonance it can be frustrating or even frightening. Our minds crave rest, but they derive the most pleasure from the moment just before the promised rest. If we don’t know when the rest is coming, we can’t enjoy the conflict. But if we can see the pattern that has happened before and notice how it’s repeating in our lives, we can know that rest is coming.

Engaging doubt, questioning, searching, and changing are all dissonant activities. They are painful, fearful, and frustrating if we don’t know where we’re going. We’re afraid that we won’t ever have rest again. But once we’ve been through it or we’ve seen someone else go through it we can have hope that we’ll get to the rest again.

That hope allows us to enjoy the dissonance instead of dreading it.


What’s your favorite song? What’s your favorite part of your favorite song?

When you go on a hike or a drive to a new place, how does the trip feel? What about the second time? What about when you are going home from work?

What does your to-do list look like on your day off? What do you want it to look like?

How were you taught to deal with fear and doubt when you were growing up? Regarding school? Regarding sports? Music? Faith?

How would it change your life if you were familiar with the “tune” of moving from cognitive dissonance to consonance?

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