The Metaphysics of Tonal Harmony

Student thesis: Phd


The present study is an enquiry into the metaphysics of tonal harmony. Specifically, it is aimed at accounting for the ontology and the aesthetics of chords. Part I concerns the ontology of chords. Since chords are sounds, I begin by considering the nature of sound. In Chapter One, I characterise the problem of sound in terms of the current philosophical debate, which is marked by two main dichotomies: on the one hand, the Wave and the Event View are taken to be irreconcilable; on the other hand, the Event and the Object View are also seen as incompatible. Conversely, in Chapter Two I propose a thesis of sonic reconciliation, which is aimed at integrating the fundamentals of those views. In light of my conciliatory approach, I proceed to examine the nature of chords qua sound events in Chapter Three, where I establish the necessary conditions for chord events to exist. This is followed by an analysis of the psychoacoustics and phenomenology of chord perception in Chapter Four, under which I give an account of the nature of chords qua Gestalt-based auditory objects. Yet, given that chords are distinctive musical entities within the domain of tonal harmony, in Chapter Five I provide an account of their nature qua musical individuals, which further substantiates my treatment of the ontology of chords. In turn, Part II is focused on the aesthetics of chords. In Chapter Six, I introduce the problem of consonance as concerning what kind of property consonance is: on the one hand, consonance is treated primarily as a psychoacoustic property; on the other hand, it is taken to be a musical property. The problem thus consists in the conflict between psychoacoustic and musical views on consonance and dissonance. In response, I propose the thesis of the dual phenomenology of consonance/dissonance as pertaining to two different components of musical consonance: the sensory component and harmony (i.e. the distinctively musical experience of chords). After examining the psychoacoustic basis of consonance/dissonance perception in Chapter Seven, in Chapter Eight I account for the aesthetics of chords qua isolated auditory objects and qua musical individuals within a distinctively musical context, whilst also indicating how the psychoacoustics of harmony and the musical experience of it may be reconciled. In Chapter Nine, I substantiate the thesis of the dual phenomenology of consonance/dissonance further by arguing that the sensory component is best accounted for under the notion of response-dependence, whereas harmony is best understood under aesthetic supervenience. In Chapter Ten, I examine the instability of chord tokens vis-a-vis tuning and temperament differences, which have historically proven to be more intractable than the problem of consonance itself.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorEmily Caddick Bourne (Supervisor), David Liggins (Supervisor) & James Garratt (Supervisor)


  • Musical acoustics
  • Tonal harmony
  • Phenomenology of chord perception
  • Metaphysics
  • Aesthetics of harmony
  • Metaphysics of music
  • Metaphysics of harmony
  • Philosophy of music
  • Ontology of sound
  • Psychoacoustics of chord perception
  • Tuning
  • Chords
  • Harmony
  • Musical Ontology
  • Musical Aesthetics
  • Temperament
  • Aesthetics of chords
  • Ontology of chords
  • Consonance
  • Dissonance

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