Consonance and Dissonance in Music

In a music forum I was recently confronted with this statement:

“All the expression; all the information is in the dissonances”

I didn’t agree, it was too strong a statement for me, although it clearly contains at least some truth.

For me the essence of all music is the ebb and flow through varying degrees of consonance and dissonance….either harmonic, melodic or rhythmic etc.

But there is a much bigger debate here – the very nature of musical consonance and dissonance. How can we debate such questions as the original one above if we haven’t got a clear understanding of the two terms in the first place?

Various attempts to pin down these concepts clearly demonstrate that there is still considerable confusion about the nature, (and therefore the purpose), of both consonance and dissonance…they are simply generic, holistic, multi-faceted terms that cover many theories and hypotheses.

  • acoustic theories abound; so do ones based around…
  • Psycho physiological aspects of the auditory system
  • Higher level cognitive phenomena, such as the categorical perception of musical intervals due to learning.
  • Social, cultural or stylistic norms that are internalized by listeners.

Within the above 4 areas there a many more sharply focused ideas about the nature of consonance and dissonance…

  • frequency ratios
  • harmonic relationships
  • expectation dissonance
  • interval category dissonance…

The list is very long indeed.

Even looking superficially at the various developments in musical history, it is clear that the definitions of dissonance and consonance have never been stable or static…

Hell, there’s even a ‘Timeline for the Emancipation of Dissonance’!

Schoenberg may well have sought to dispense with any functional distinction between dissonance and consonance, but there is still tension and release in his music, (some of it, I know from other musical elements), which comes from ‘less dissonant’ and ‘more dissonant’ moments. In the context of certain pieces, what is dissonant was perhaps redefined, but NOT escaped from.

In his quest for innovation, did Arnold possibly lose sight of the very nature of dissonance and consonance? Did he actually fully understand them in the first place?

Do any of us fully comprehend them?


Tonality is NOT Dead

Weaving a slender (and unfortunately spider silk strong), filament through many forums is a prejudice that is all too common in academic music circles…

The history of music is a messy diversity of compositional practices that a significant minority of musicians still try and compress into a single historical mainstream.

They talk of streams and tributaries and then dam them up; they discuss various smaller side branches off the main trunk and then fetch the saw from the garden shed… their main river flows smoothly on…their tree continues to grow straight up towards the sky.

These accounts of musical ‘evolution’ often ignore various historical discontinuities and divergent practices – these are dismissed as inconsequential departures from the main current.

Their words tend to privilege later forms of harmonic phenomena – described as more ‘advanced’; ‘more complex’.

They give preferential treatment to the new and the original…In relation to their contemporaries, Chopin = progressive; Rachmaninov = regressive.


Atonal music is judged as more complicated and more difficult than tonal music and therefore more worthy of critical attention.


Schoenberg wrote that the journey towards increasing dissonance was an emancipation of musical resources…a quest in search of a Holy Grail…a Utopian Zukunftsmusik, (sorry Richard Wagner).

 Funnily enough, others warned of an impending atonal apocalypse!!! (They were also off-target).

 These blinkered musicologists have a simplistic, linear view of musical history and they often connect it strongly and directly to evolution and other biological factors…

 They use words such as ‘continuous progress’ ‘selection’ and ‘adaptation’ and talk of forces at work within music that are analogous to the development of an organism…

 They refer to the energetic tendencies of the semitone and the mutation of modality into tonality; the metamorphosis of tonality into atonality.


Applying evolutionary concepts to cultural phenomena is ridiculous, inane, asinine, stupid……….very silly!

Tonality is alive and kicking…it has not collapsed, worn out or broken down from over-use! Neither has modality for that matter and it was ‘branching’ off into what we now call tonality a long time ago!

Hopefully atonality will also continue to thrive!

Berg, Scelsi, Xenakis, Ligeti, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, Genesis…

You don’t have to choose sides – appreciate and enjoy them all…I do!