Understanding dissonance

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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

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

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


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

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
as ugly or out of

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

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

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Latest Comments

  • Sam Billmore

    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

  • paul

    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?

  • Greg

    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.

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