Friday, April 15, 2011

The Beauty Of Dissonance

Question: Sometimes as I learn a new piece of guitar music, there are notes played together that are very dissonant. It can discourage me from learning the piece. For instance, in one piece I'm singing an A note while the guitar plays the low G on the bass string just below it. The guitar feels like it wants to jump out the window! How do I deal with that?

Answer: First let me say that dissonance is an essential part of most music that we listen to, so don't be put off by it. When you practice a new piece really slowly as you learn it, you hear intervals (two notes) and chords (three or more notes) out of context. This can emphasize the dissonances built into the piece, which can be a problem. It's easy to dwell on an individual chord when learning a piece, much more so than actually happens when the piece is played at performance speed.Once you realize that, it may make it easier to work through the dissonance at a slow speed. I call this the difference between listening "vertically" and "horizontally."

If you look at a piece of music on a piece of paper (or onscreen in this computerized age), intervals and chords are lined up vertically on the page. Melodies and other moving lines are read horizontally as they move across the page. If you play one interval or chord out of the context of the piece,the dissonance within it may drive you crazy. But, if the composer or arranger did his/her job well, the dissonant interval or chord will sound fine and correct in the context of the moving music.

Let me explain dissonance. Dissonance can be described as notes whose frequencies are less than "harmonious"to our ears. For instance, playing notes that are one half-step apart (open first-string E played with the fourth fret of the second string, a D#) is considered dissonant by most people. Playing notes that are a major seventh interval apart, 11 frets, is also considered to be quite dissonant; for instance, play the opensecond string (B) together with the 6th fret of the first string(A#). However, dissonance is a requisite part of most music that we hear, providing it with "tension" that leads to "release."Without it, we end up with music that tends to command little attention.

Many good examples of "vertical"dissonance can be found in three- and four-part vocal music: Soprano-Alto-Tenor-Bassch oral music, for example. In this day and age of Crosby, Stills and Nash-style parallel harmonies, there isn't as much dissonance as can be found in some music of 500 years ago. In the choral music of that era, the melodic flow of each voice (the "horizontal")was actually considered to be more important than the chord (the"vertical") that the four notes made at any given time.This is the antithesis of the CSN approach, where the chord produced by the voices is of utmost importance.

In modern pop music of the CSN variety,the harmony voices largely are singing a line that is exactly parallel to the melody. This leads to continuously harmonious chords. In other writing, each voice has its own melodic shape,not necessarily parallel to any of the others. This can lead to some "vertical" dissonance, chordal dissonance caused by the independent melodic flow of the voices. But if it is done correctly, this dissonance is wonderful--the exact right thing for that moment in the music. If you are interested in hearing this kind of writing, get a CD of Renaissance choral music. One composer of that era who used dissonance liberally was Carlo Gesualdo. Look him up! Dissonance is all in the ear of the beholder, of course. A half-step interval may be beautiful to one listener,and unbearable to another. Also, how a dissonant interval is perceived can be quite dependent on the other notes around the dissonance.But that is another article. Keep those ears open!

By: Mark Hanson 

**HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF A Crosby, Stills, and Nash song called "Teach Your Children:

**HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF Carlo Gesualdo called "Tristis est anima mea":


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