Understanding dissonance

Save 15% on all instructional courses and packages!

Through 5/2218, use coupon code 2018spring10. Good for DVDs and downloads.  Learn more here.

I often talk about how one of the highest goals of your music should be beauty.  On the other hand, I spend a lot of time talking about harmony that is in itself, very dissonant.  If this seems a bit inconsistent to you, I can understand.  Today, I want to talk about dissonance and why I think it is so important.

First, let’s talk about the history of Western music.  Many believe that you can summarize the development of Western music as an evolving acceptance of dissonance.

You have to look at history to understand the significance of this statement.  If you go back to ancient Greece, music at that time had no dissonance because there was no harmony at all–just a melody.

Over time, harmony was added to the melody line but there still was little dissonance.  At first, the melody was just accompanied an octave higher or lower.  Later, a harmony line might be added a perfect fifth above the melody.

Until Bach, the Catholic church was very influential in the development of music and resisted dissonance.  That did not stop its development, but did slow it down.  After Bach, the church lost much of its power and dissonance advanced more rapidly.

As we all know, extreme dissonance became the order of the day in much 20th century music.  In fact, many composers made it a point to abandon consonance and tonality as much as possible.  In my opinion, they went a bit too far.  You may have heard of the composer who threw a flopping fish onto the strings of a piano and called the resulting sounds a composition. (Yes, that is a true story.)

If you were to merely say that the dissonance in music has increased over the past several centuries, that would be only half of the story.  The other thing that has changed is the acceptance of dissonance.  There is no doubt that what we consider beautiful today would have been considered horribly dissonant a few centuries ago.

When discussing this issue, let’s consider the tritone, which is an interval made up of three whole steps.  This interval was practically banned by the church for centuries because of its dissonance, but we now know it is the basis of the functionality of the dominant chord.

As you probably know, a dominant chord normally resolves down a fifth (and sometimes, a half-step).  There is a good reason for this, and it involves the tritone.  Note the movement of the tritone interval in the following examples that show a resolution down a fifth or down a half step.  In both cases, the notes that make up the tritone (marked in red) resolve in contrary motion a half step to the root and third of the new chord.

So, here is the point I want you to understand–yesterday’s rejected dissonance is an integral part of our music.  In fact, while the church would have rejected the dominant chord a few centuries ago, most of us would never stop to think of a dominant chord as being dissonant at all.  Likewise, it is very probable that in a hundred years, the average listener will accept more dissonance than we do today.

Now, let’s get to the real issue of this lesson–the role of dissonance in your music and how to determine how much you should use.

Before I answer that question, you have to understand why we need dissonance at all.  Dissonance is used to create tension which in turn, creates interest.  Music that has no tension is boring music.

By the way, dissonance is neither good or bad in itself.  At least, that is what I believe.  If you are in a church that believes dissonance is wrong, then you can stop reading now.  I would not advocate your playing music in your church that your church believes is wrong.

Dissonance is just a technique to create tension.  It can however, be used well or poorly.   Understanding the difference is not an easy task but an important one.

I cannot give you hard guidelines because every culture and church is a bit different.  I will however, try to give you some thoughts to get you thinking about this.

Basic major and minor triads are no longer considered dissonant by anyone.  But in churches, some people may find additional notes to be dissonant.  For example, adding major 7ths may sound dissonant to some even though I find them to be gorgeous.  Such color notes as flat 9ths, sharp 11ths and flat 13ths may really cross a line with a church congregation.

By the way, the same people that are bothered by dissonant chords in church might like them if they heard them on the radio on the way home.  That adds another level of complexity to this subject that we can talk about some other time.

There is no doubt that I could use a lot more dissonance in my music than I do.  There are many chords that I think are beautiful, but I do not incorporate them into church music.  The reason is simple–in a church setting, they would be  perceived as ugly or out of place.

That leads me to a good rule of thumb about dissonance.  Understand your audience and what they are used to.  Some of the chords I talk about in these lessons may be a bit too dissonant for your church.  If so, you would wise to avoid them, or very slowly introduce them in your music.

Don’t play complex chords just because you want to play complex chords.  And don’t play chords that make your audience scratch their heads (too often).  Play music that connects with your audience and yourself.  There is no reason why you cannot help lead your church toward a broader appreciation of dissonance.

Just don’t try to do it in one song!


3 thoughts on “Understanding dissonance

  1. paul says:

    I’m not against dissonance, but is it really “just a technique to create tension”? When you add dissonance to an arrangement, isn’t there some judgment made on your part as to how it impacts the message of the song?

  2. Greg says:

    It is a complex thing, but the short answer is yes. But keep in mind that I am not discussing dissonance that is far out to the point of being distracting. I am referring to dissonance that sets up resolution which in turn highlights beauty. Really is hard to have beauty without dissonance.

    So, the casual listener is not going to come away saying, wow that is dissonant. They should come away saying it was beautiful but in a deep rather than shallow way. You could compare it to what a New Age pianist might play versus Rachmaninoff. One uses dissonance but you will still be moved by beauty. The other eschews dissonance and at the end, you might wonder if you wasted your time. The use of dissonance is one difference between fluff and better music.

    I was reading this again to see if I still agree (I wrote this a few years ago). To the large extent, I do though I can see some confusion. For example, my comment about churches not believing in dissonance is silly. Every church accepts dissonance no matter how conservative because they accept the dominant chord.

  3. Sam Billmore says:

    Hey Greg, a very interesting read indeed. I myself am researching for my dissertation at the moment and am writing it about how dissonance is far more accepted and progressive in the 20th Century and why?. There is no doubt that we do accept more from music nowadays, but my question is why? Do you think it is merely a natural progression or are there other influences such as technological developments and sociopolitical factors. I would really appreciate your thoughts on the matter and anything you find interesting.

    P.S. Researching the development of harmony across a few hundred years is fascinating, I would be so excited to hear the music of the future 2100 and beyond. One cannot even imagine its vast possibilities!

    Kind Regards

    Sam Billmore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *