Dissonance in Music — Beautiful Tension

In 1728, Johann Heinichen published a treatise on composition and thorough bass titled Der General-Bass in der Composition. In this large, rather comprehensive book, he writes:

“Intervals are divided into consonances, or good sounds [Wohlklingende], and dissonances, or evil sounds [Ubelklingend]. The consonances are the 3rd, 5th , 6th and 8va, and the unison is also included. Consonances are deemed as such because when two tones are sounded at once both tones do not annoy [verdreißlich] the ears, but are pleasant. The dissonances are the 2nd. 4th, diminished 5th, 7th and 9th. Even though the dissonances constitute the most beautiful part of present-day/today’s music, they were nevertheless called evil sounding, because they seem to insult the ears with the first striking of the keys. Thus, they inevitably have to be made nice sounding and have to be resolved through certain artistic practices.”

Clearly, he is having a difficult time with the concept of what “dissonance” is. He says that they are Ubel sounding, “evil” or “nasty.” Yet, they also constitute the most beautiful part of music today; that is, when they are treated properly. In simpler terms, he is naming the tension that occurs when two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other. Though it was written nearly three hundred years ago, this tension that he names is what often seems to make music most interesting. It becomes a theme among the great works.

Now, in 2014, I wonder what sort of new music can make use of the form of dissonance (two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other) with a new style. My theorist friend, Christopher Antila, once told me that there are many different kinds of dissonances. For instance, he said, at the end of Shostakovitch’s fourth symphony a C major chord is held for almost two whole minutes. But, he says, because of the musical activity that precedes it is so dissonant without idiomatic 18th century treatment, the C major chord actually sounds “dissonant.” It feel unresolved, as if it needs to finish somewhere.

How can a major chord, that chord which most typically resolves dissonances, be, itself, dissonant? Context, I think, seems to be the answer. It is the resolution of dissonances that seem to be the most satisfying, not necessarily the dissonance, or consonance themselves. Again, this is what I think Heinichen is referring to. So, if it is not the particular intervals themselves, in themselves, that define what “dissonance” is, then tension can be found with a host of new resources.

New resources: such as organ and electronics. I recently gave the Canadian premiere of Morgan’s “Adam’s Fall” for organ and electronics. Mogan has described the piece as “a fixed electronics track comprising of five repetitions of a set of six chords (taken from the closing cadence of Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Durch Adam’s Fall) [which] is played while the organist improvises from a pitch-set derived from those chords. Each recorded statement is fractionally flattened and sharpened in alternation in a converging pattern, creating a dialogue between the absolute pitch of the organ and the variable pitch of the electronics.”  Consequently, the (pre-recorded) chorale sounds more dissonant at, say, 4:42, or 6:09, than its first appearance. These sounds seem to writhe in agony, and yet there is something deeply satisfying about hearing this discomfort in contrast to the pitch set of the organ, which is in tune.

Or, to take a very simple example, look at  the THX quality sound intro.  It is so satisfying when it resolves towards the end.

In a similar vein, Giacinto Scelsi’s In Nomine Lucis employs half pulled organ stops in order to create strange dissonances and harmonics. Because the various organ stops used, the lack of air in each pipe creates a variety of dissonances. And by juxtaposing these dissonances in various ways, a new context is created; thus, some sounds become more dissonant than others. I find the result extremely terrifying yet beautifully satisfying.

What am I saying here? Something quite simple. I think that there is a lot of good music to be made using the tension that occurs between chords which are  “in tune” and chords which are “out of tune.” My idea is not radical. Tuning systems used to be exactly this: some chords sounded purer than others; thus, certain dissonances and consonances also had greater and lesser tensions depending on the context. You can read an introductory book about it here, or you can see a very basic demonstration on youtube, here.

In sum, interesting music seems to thrive on tension. Let’s expand upon tension that has not been exhausted. And let us look for new ways to create tension. Let us continue to make interesting music!

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

8 thoughts on “Dissonance in Music — Beautiful Tension

  1. Well said. I would add that dissonance can be found not just in pitch, but also in timbre, rhythm, and a variety of other musical elements. In the Second Dance by Philip Glass, for example, the effect of rather jarring dissonance is created in the A-flat Major passages by simply inserting two notes into the continuous triplet rhythms. (see 3:40 for one example, but it occurs in different manners throughout the piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT9QGm-BWzs) Messiaen is, of course one of the great masters of rhythmic dissonance with the idea of added values. You mentioned Scelsi. I would also point out his “Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola,” which are each based on a single pitch. Dissonance is achieved in part by microtonality, pitch bending, and trilling around the single note, but primarily in the realms of timbre and rhythm. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I0QIRXcbZ4


    1. I hadn’t thought of the rhythmic element. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Do you think that in extending the word “dissonance” to so many different aspects of musical material, that it begins to lose much concrete meaning? For instance, Heinichen is addressing certain intervals in certain contexts. He is able to work with very specific and definitive terms. What he can’t make up his mind about is the fact that dissonance is supposed to somehow be nasty sounding, yet they sound great when used within a certain context. I agree that even in Heinichen’s world, there are different degrees of dissonance, though they might all be labeled as dissonant; I would be hesitant to say that he hear a 6/4 chord with the same dissonant impact as a 7th chord.

      Do you think it is helpful to categorize dissonance with varying degrees? Or do you think that that the word itself has mostly lost meaning and one could just as easily replace it with “tension” or “contrast.” Whereas, in Heinichen’s world, dissonance and consonance are two very specific and worked out entities.

      Attempting to be very clear: If there are so many different kinds of dissonances, how can we distinguish between them? Is it only by understanding the context that we can understand the dissonance that occurs within it? What do we say to a listener who hears an entire piece as one big mess of dissonance? Are they listening wrong, or are they using the word dissonance wrong?


  2. Nice post. Themes of harmony and dissonance have been quite popular over the past few decades in a lot of theological discourse. It would be interesting to think further on what implications the beauty of tension and dissonance might have for theology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whenever I come across the words harmony and dissonance in theological or philosophical texts, they are used the way musicians and theorists would have understood the term more than one hundred years ago. And they were understood as universal ideas. Now, when we speak of harmony, we speak of it as one option among others; if we choose harmony, then we can apply rules. But there is nothing to say that we should, since it’s universal application (at least in the western world) has undergone extreme revision as being nearly synonymous with music in general.

      With this in mind, do you think that the term might be not as helpful as the authors you are referring to might think?


  3. Have you read Cheryl Pauls’s essay in *The Gift of Difference*? There’s some more nuanced musical analysis done as theology than one normally sees.

    I’m not sure how helpful terms like harmony and dissonance are in theology. I’ve use them before. And I think that they do convey a helpful image. However, once the debates start (both in personal conversation and in the literature) I’ve often wondered if it simply becomes a debate over semantics. “The church should strive for harmony.” “What about dissonance? That’s where you find true difference.” “Well, obviously any sort of interesting or worthwhile harmony has a good amount of dissonance.” “So, how much dissonance is good? How is it well or poorly utilized?” “Yes. This is an important conversation. But with different terms; this analogy is no longer helpful.”

    Sound about right?


  4. Just re-reading my comment. Having said all of that, I do think that something interesting happens when people are reminded that beauty worth its name is integrally related to dissonance and tension. One example for theology: It sure makes the Bible a more helpful and “revealing” book.


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