Finding Pleasure in the Dissonant
We’ve gone over the aspects that make up sound and music, and what makes them consonant or dissonant, now it’s time to look at what makes music good and interesting.
When composers create music, they very rarely stick to all that is consonant, even though in the previous article that’s what we defined as sounding ‘good.’ Instead, composers and musicians alike break this with repeated deviations into dissonant chords and sounds.
The reason for this is present in more than just music, it’s the idea of tension and release.
In music, most if not all chords have a tendency to ‘resolve’ or to pull towards another; the most obvious example being the perfect cadence, which takes us from the V or 5th scale degree to the I or 1st degree, when you hear it you’ll recognize it immediately, and you should have no trouble in seeing how the V seems to pull you into the I (The perfect cadence is the final two chords):
What happens if we deny you the I? What if we take you somewhere else?
When we add more dissonance to the chords and to the music, we create more tension, it builds up pressure, and we wait eagerly for the release. Many classical composers were experts at using tension to build throughout the entire composition for us to find the perfect resolution at the very end.
It adds excitement to music, we don’t like to hear music that obeys every rule and goes exactly where we expect it to, that’s boring and it’s not why we listen to it.
When we’re young, we listen to this type of ‘predictable’ consonant music — Think ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ or ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ now they don’t really quench our musical thirst, but back in the day they were great.
Just like anything else, we need to start at the beginning, keep it simple and understandable. In math we start with small numbers; in art we start with basic faces; and in music we start with simple melodies and chord progressions.
We actually start to gain some of our knowledge of scales and musical experiences while we’re still in the womb, it’s why we’re often more accustomed to the music of our culture; while we can most definitely come to enjoy music of different cultures, it takes a little more work as our brains need to adjust to the differences — similar to learning a second language.
As we start to grow up, we move on to algebra, painting full portraits, and to more complex forms of music. When we’re older, we get bored of the simple structures we started off listening to, we need more. Rhythms and harmonies begin to use dissonance and strange chords to make things sound more unusual and unexpected, exciting.
Just like some people never go beyond high school algebra (actually they often regress), and others never decide to pick up another paintbrush, some people are also very happy to find a nice musical zone and get comfortable, which is fine, but for many others it’s not enough.
There are two main types of listener, let’s call them active listeners and passive listeners. The passive listener is one that likes music to be a background activity, who will listen to what’s on the radio or playing in the bar, but doesn’t often seek out new music — they’re happy with what they know and have; the active listener likes to focus on the music and let it be the center of attention, the person that goes out in search of new music and would happily pay a fair price for it.
These two distinctions are important, often the people that get into a musical comfort zone are the passive listeners, while those that like to expand on their auditory experiences are active listeners. Of course, we are not always one or the other, there are times when a passive listener will hear something new and jump for joy; while an active listener might go on a car ride and not go crazy with the repetitive dribble on the radio.
The idea however is that people are more one than the other, by differing degrees, and the complexity of the music we enjoy depends largely on how active we are in our musical exploration. Often, those people that seek out new music and are always willing to give it a chance, will have a higher ‘tolerance’ for dissonance in music and an appreciation for different types and sounds; whereas those that have gotten comfortable will likely stay at home with their tried and true musical styles.
I’m not trying to say that an active listener will enjoy everything, only those musical styles in which they’ve given an adequate amount of time too; there’s always some bizarre new sounds out there that even the most dedicated listener will cringe over.
So to wrap things up, music takes us on a journey, through the consonant and dissonant, through the tension and release, presenting us with imagery and feelings both highly personal and not easily explained. Sound has gone from an evolutionary warning system to an art form, and I for one am extremely grateful. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: