The great dissonance hoax

I'm not talking about prepared dissonance with resolution, I'm talking about the predelection for "modern" composition to embrace relentless dissonance as a foundation for a piece of music.In the effort to evolve music beyond the common practice era, we have thrown harmony under the bus. Notably, yes there has been some harmonic evolution that has given us a broader pallette to work with, but these have more to do with how we modulate, more colorful chromaticism and breaking of various rules that have actually led to better music. That's not what I'm talking about, either.I'm talking about what can best be described as an infatuation with the need to innovate at the expense of aesthetics. A flat-out refusal to ever resolve to some kind of consonance. Dissonance has historically served as contrast to consonance and vice versa. It seems to me that continuous dissonance is just as undesirable as constant consonance. Continual consonance makes music trivial. Continual dissonance makes it grating. Go ahead, put in a stable triad. It won't kill you, I promise.But, really, why have we done this? I think it's because harmony is seen as the most expedient means by which to innovate. And I think perhaps we're being myopic here. Harmony being such a fundamental cornerstone of the foundation, it has, perhaps, the greatest impact. But breaking a thing does not make it better. What about melody? We've moved beyond the adherence to singable intervals, for example. Or texture and orchestration? Many years ago, I was taking a music production class and produced a piece that mixed classical and electronic elements. I was criticized for mixing genres. Some years later, Hans Zimmer was hailed as a pioneer for doing the same thing. And now we have a much more colorful orchestral pallette that has been amazingly developed in the film scoring community. Or how about structure and form? Now, for my money, that has some real potential. ABA' mod A B C Now, we really can do better than that! I think the interplay of thematic material is the most overlooked source of evolution in music. (So there, I've offered an alternative.)Are we sure we're not assaulting harmony just because it's an easy way to make new music?
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  • Thank you to Tom and Thomas for some really insightful points there - gave me lots to think about. The point about "world music" is a good one. Arguably it is having a huge influence on Western styles now, and probably nowhere is that more evident than in film music: despite its reliance on plenty of formulaic traditions, it also has a large element of flexibility which is needed in order to perform its function, and I think perhaps this "outer layer" absorbs much of the current cultural trends, making interesting combinations with the solid foundation below as it goes. Hmmm, that may or may not be true, but it seems quite poetic anyway :)
  • Check out Luciano Berio's essay "Meditations on a Twelve Tone Horse" if you get the chance. A classic in the literature. It compares twelve tone composition to fascism.
  • I was thinking about the same topic and wrote a piece called "The Emancipation of the Consonance" for String Quartet. Schoenberg's famous "emancipation of the dissonance" went on to enslave many a composer. Meet the new boss same as the old boss, that sort of thing. I have no problem with Schoenberg's music, in fact I rather enjoy some of it. The problem arises when people start to fetishize any idea, especially when those people become teachers and stifle the creativity of their students.
    I had a similair experience with a professor in an electronic music course. I spent countless hours, days, and weeks working on a project that was immediately dismissed because it was tonal. Listening back, the piece wasn't very good in terms of construction and so on, but it did have some good points which the professor didn't allow himself , or myself, to see.
    It is true that tonality can come off as trite since it was blown apart. A grandiose pause on a V chord often makes me twinge, but it all depends on how the material is handled, not the material itself if that makes any sense.
  • When I first heard "Birth of Cool" from Mikes Davis. I hated it. I tried to like it I listened to it every day for a month hoping it would sink in. it didn't. I loved his later work I loved his later work. I hated the entire "Birth of Cool" album from start to finish. 30 years after I first heard it I listened again and still hated it.

    Miles was searching in the dark with a machete. Sometimes our first adventures are not our best. We often think in terms of consonance and dissonance as being the only two choices we have. The truth is between black and white there are plenty of grays and we don't have to perceive it as simply high contrast.
  • Ray,

    Interesting that you would say music is best judged in terms of its aesthetic value. As a listener, I'm terribly eclectic. I will listen to anything by Rachel Portman. I also really like the current song from Lady Gaga. I don't even know the name of it because I'm not a Lady Gaga fan, but when I hear something that just sounds cool, I let it. (Although Italian arias are just never going to be on my shelf I'm afraid.)

    Even if we diversify to say these folks like Jazz, these folks get the Sonata form and these guys dig metal wall, it all comes down to the pinnacle of aesthetic vindication: somebody is listening. And wants to.

    But for an audience, go I there.
  • I agree with Ray's comments, with just one reservation: sometimes different people have different abilities to perceive certain complexities in music, without intellectual effort. For example, the audience at a modern jazz gig will typically consist mainly of people who can appreciate the interplay of the chords in that style. This doesn't mean that they could write them down or understand the theory. It's sufficient that they are experienced in listening to that style, and that it therefore brings emotional meaning to them because of the mental context in which they are listening. Other people with no history of listening to jazz might hear a cacophony, but that doesn't mean that the people who are enjoying the music are having to analyze it in order to do so.
  • For many New Music composers such elements as melody, harmony, and structure along with any composers that ever lived before 20th and 21st centuries are viewed as totally irrelevant -- its like throwing the babies out with the bath water-- There's very little if anything to hang your hat on anymore!
  • I agree with what Chris is saying. Berg, for instance, was a great 12 tone composer in the fact that a large amount of his music sounded "tonal" but was within a 12 tone framework. Coltrane was an incredible master that kept growing as an artist.

    Having said that, 12 tone and Matrix Music, while very complex, comes across a lot of times has confusion except for "music nerds" like us and drove people out of the symphonic halls in droves (no offense to those to compose a lot of this music.). For most symphonic organizations still around, they have never quite recovered and it has taken them generations to get a rise in attendance.

    I believe that quartal and quintal harmony can be mixed in very effectively with "regular" harmonic progressions to put the expansion of harmony and create a good amount of tension. In pop music, there is music out there where melody is the last thing they care about as the goal is to create a wall of noise.

    Anyway, I digress. I think this was a great article I think the mixing of genres subtopic was spot on. In food terms, this blog is steak and my blog about the clean garage is like a salad. Good job!!
  • The thirst for innovation often invites confusion with chaos? The "inner mind" argument is a dangerous one because it invites the rhetoric of how we've been trained to expect certain things aesthetically. However, I agree with you. I would append it with the notion of natural balance. Technically, of course, we can cite acoustics. Aesthetically, I think there's more to it. There's also the notion of how music is derivative of the spoken voice. etc. etc. (we could go on forever with the underlying principles.)

    Artistically, I think what we're seeing is a sort of impatience. It took centuries to evolve from organum to common practice. Our efforts to move beyond these principles is (more or less) a little over 100 years underway. (I count romanticism as an extension of common practice for this particular argument.) In an age when we have seen the revival of folk music forms, experimentation with electroacoustics now dominated by the quest for duplicating acoustic technology that is several hundred years old, I think it is somehow incongruous that our efforts at artistic evolution are comparitively meager. Not to dismiss Shchoenberg, Glass, et al, but we just seem more interested in abandoning harmony rather than evolving the art form as a synergistic whole. These things take time. Interestingly enough, what has always survived, and what will survive from our own efforts, is that which people enjoy listening to.

    Thanks for reading and your response.
  • Well said, Michael! I've often thought that the perverse adherence to dissonance comes from the mistaken idea that harmony is arbitrary. In reality, I believe it is strongly tied to our inner minds, and to live at one extreme end of any axis such as the consonance/dissonance one is to risk the onset of boredom in the emotions of the listener.

    Incidentally, I have similar feelings about certain types of avant garde poetry...
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