Thoughts on Dissonance in Musical Composition

My passion for music really got started back when I started playing music myself. Since that time, many years and many instruments ago, my ideas about what makes great music have changed drastically. When you start out learning about music, you find that there are lots of rules to stay within in order to make music that sounds "pleasing to the ear". That's all well and good to start out with. Working within a framework like that allows even beginners to create satisfying music without too much of a learning curve. Even when branching out into the basics of jazz, a musical genre designed around playing what you want when you want, there are still certain "acceptable" patterns to follow. I grew a little tired of these limiting ideas myself, and after studying a lot of music and far to many long nights listening to noise rock and free form jazz, I really started to look at music different. I look at musical intervals as creating different moods that can be used in turn for specific purposes... and no interval or sound is off limits, even those heavily dissonant ones that would normally be out of bounds for most composers.

In fact, it is those dissonant chords, intervals and patterns that I've really come to like in music. They create a tension and a sense of urgency that adds a depth that only comes from those moments. Although regular musical frameworks can be just as exciting, there is something about leaving that tension between the notes that really makes specific passages come alive with energy and movement.

Wait... tension, movement? Dissonance, isn't that a bad thing? What does he mean? Don't worry, I know for people who may not be as engrossed with music as I am, these sound like terms and ideas I'm just throwing around and that can be confusing. Let me see if I can explain without delving into the often times bottomless pit of boredom that is music theory.

What makes dissonance such an interesting part of music for me, is the "tension" it creates. Certain notes when stressed against certain keys, certain intervals between notes have a feeling about them. These notes sound like they want to resolve to the base, or other notes that are more consonant with the key, chord or otherwise. It's a complex concept to explain, but when you hear dissonance in action by stressing certain notes, it's very noticeable and with time you can even determine what interval is being stressed based on how dissonant it sounds. This can be applied to chords as well as various extended chords apply the intervals and then can be used to resolve in the same way, one chord into the next.

Personally, I think that instead of relying only on keys, and specific frameworks, musicians should look at the interval between the root and each other note. Each interval has a certain sound with ranging tensions. By applying the intervals in different situations, you can create any mood, style or feel that you want from flowing and straight forward, to the most disjointed noise rock. Where it really gets interesting is when you start stressing these dissonant notes and chords and leaving them unresolved, or holding off on resolution, as that creates some very dramatic movement and tension in the song, adding emphasis when those notes finally are brought back to the root. Like I said, it's this tension and movement that really fascinate me and makes me want to employ them in my own music. It's unexpected and can take songs in unexpected directions, which often makes for more exciting musical compositions... if applied creatively.

Now, I understand that to a lot of that sounds vaguely like nonsense to someone completely unfamiliar with music theory or playing music. Don't worry, there are times it still sounds like nonsense to me as I'm far from an expert in music theory. I don't think I really came close to understanding it at all until I actually sat down and experimented a bit. If you're not a musician, maybe these thoughts on dissonance has sparked your interest in music theory though. I don't really expect that to be the case as not many people are as interested in the concepts behind music as I am and it can easily be mind-numbingly boring. You never know though.

My main point though behind this piece is directed towards all you musicians, new and old, out there. All I'm saying is don't be afraid of dissonance in your music as some of the most exciting sounds involve these ideas of note resolution and the tension between intervals of note. Don't play it safe, play around with more dissonant sounds as there are some amazing things to be heard and endless musical creativity to be explored.


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