Beyond the emotional impact of dissonance: Inharmonic music elicits greater cognitive interference than does harmonic music
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The present research evaluates whether task-irrelevant inharmonic music produces greater interference with cognitive performance than task-irrelevant harmonic music. Participants completed either an auditory (Experiments 1 and 2) or a visual (Experiment 3) version of the cognitively demanding 2-back task in which they were required to categorize each digit in a sequence of digits as either being a target (a digit also presented two positions earlier in the sequence) or a distractor (all other items). They were concurrently exposed to task-irrelevant harmonic music (judged to be consonant), task-irrelevant inharmonic music (judged to be dissonant), or no music at all as a distraction. The main finding across all three experiments was that performance on the 2-back task was worse when participants were exposed to inharmonic music than when they were exposed to harmonic music. Interestingly, performance on the 2-back task was generally the same regardless of whether harmonic music or no music was played. I suggest that inharmonic, dissonant music interferes with cognitive performance by requiring greater cognitive processing than harmonic, consonant music, and speculate about why this might be.