Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Virtue of Dissonance

Some time ago, I caught a bit of an interview on the radio. Who was talking to whom about what is not important here, since their current-events topic is not what got me thinking. There was a reference made to a word that had, over the years (since the interviewee was a historian, this could also mean generations or centuries), completely changed its meaning: like the word “virtue,” he explained, which started out as a man's courage (from the Latin, vir = man, virtus = courage, fortitude, power and strength as well as moral perfection and rectitude) but which now refers more to a woman’s innocence and virginity ("she is a woman of virtue"), especially in the Victorian Era and its aftermath.

We would never think of describing a powerful man facing some problem with courage and strength as “a man of virtue” or “a virtuous man.” Likewise, if we tried to describe a woman facing a similar problem with similar characteristics, calling her “a virtuous woman” may send a different picture entirely. The original use of the word is now largely forgotten and probably an issue only for word geeks.

Still, this got me thinking when my old friend Buzz Blogster asked me about dissonance.

Buzz – Mozart wrote a string quartet called “The Dissonant.” I never thought that Mozart wrote ugly music. It just doesn’t sound dissonant to me.

Dr. Dick – And so you just keep waiting for the nasty bits to show up? They’re actually in the introduction...

Buzz – But there isn’t anything strident about that at all!

Dr. Dick – First of all, the nickname was associated with the quartet in Mozart’s own day, and the concept of dissonance has changed over the years – well, centuries. A listener from 1786, say, plunked down in modern day New York City – aside from dealing with things like enormous buildings and cars and stuff like that – would not know what to make of the music we hear in our everyday contexts. I’m not talking about “modern music” which some people automatically associate with dissonance. Even music for movie or television soundtracks is a lot more dissonant than anything Mozart would have written.

Buzz – Not to mention just the sheer volume of our pop culture today. That’d curl anybody’s powdered wig! So what is dissonance?

Dr. Dick – Music moves in certain expected ways: a melody should do this, the harmony should do that. When it doesn’t, that creates a kind of tension – that’s not what I expected! What’s going on, here? But dissonance was something that was always a part of music.

Buzz – I thought that modern guy named Schoenberg invented dissonance...

Dr. Dick – The careful handling of dissonance was something composers were concerned about even back in the 12th Century. By the way, what is the opposite of dissonance?

Buzz – Consonance, I suppose. Which I guess means something that sounds pleasant...

Dr. Dick – If you’re defining “dissonance” as unpleasant, sure. But once musicians started adding another line to the single strand of Gregorian Chant to create two-part music, they became aware that some intervals – the distance between notes in one line and the other – sounded stable and some sounded unstable.

Buzz – So something that is stable would be consonant. And something unstable would be... unpleasant?

Dr. Dick – Forget about “unpleasant” for a while. But unstable, yes – in the sense that you expect something more, something complete... something that resolves.

Buzz – Oh, I get it. Like a cadence – okay, a final cadence, when two chords at the conclusion of a phrase create a satisfying ending.

Dr. Dick – A final cadence, you’re right, because a half-cadence would end on some chord that isn’t as satisfying by itself as a final one. And that “by itself” is very important, too – this is very subjective and while an abstract interval or chord could sound consonant, in context it could be dissonant – and I mean in the sense of unstable or needing to resolve.

(Remember, a cadence is like punctuation in written language: a half cadence is like a comma and a full cadence is like a period. It's a reasonable place where you might catch your breath.)

Now, that’s probably a better definition of “dissonance,” anyway – something that still needs to resolve.

Buzz – How does that work?

Dr. Dick – There are certain intervals we consider “consonant” and you put intervals together to create chords and these can sound consonant. You put together the pitches C, E and G and you have a C Major chord. That would sound consonant. But in the key of F Major, a cadence ending with a C Major chord would sound different because in the context of F Major, this C Major chord sounds like it would need something more to resolve: it becomes unstable – creates a sense of incompleteness, because you’ve set up the expectation it should resolve to an F Major chord and it hasn’t, yet.

This is what we call "function" in harmony - how chords work together. By itself, the chord is consonant. But in this particular context, the same chord can sound "unstable," "incomplete" or, consequently, "dissonant" because it doesn't resolve our expectations.

Technically, in the key of G Major, setting up the expectation of a C Major chord moving first to a D Major chord and then to a G Major chord, you create something that would be totally incomplete: you have two chords, now, that are missing, so technically it could be even more “dissonant” if you wanted to use it in the original sense of stability and instability.

Buzz – Huh... and yet it’s the same three pitches... the same chord...

Dr. Dick – Right, but each time in a different environment.

Now, if you took another interval of a third, like C-to-E and E-to-G and added a G-to-B-flat to that C Major chord, it now has an entirely different purpose in life: it will not sound at all stable, and that B-flat pulls you toward a resolution to an F Major chord. Now, rather than just one complete chord, we expect another chord – and that becomes a harmonic progression. That stable C Major chord has now become active and needs to move somewhere.

Buzz – So what exactly is harmony? I thought that meant something that sounds nice – something harmonious.

Dr. Dick – In that sense of the word, yes, but “harmony” is also the way these chords work together, how they move or progress from one to another. In the 19th Century sense of what creates the tonality (or key) of C Major, certain chords which by themselves may sound “consonant” will have degrees of separation from that C Major chord which now becomes the “tonic.” Anything that is not “tonic” is therefore unresolved: it requires one or more chords to get to the tonic chord in order to sound “complete.” Because this is the basis for most of the music we’re familiar with, anything that gets away from that concept can be a challenge to a listener.

Buzz – So you have expectations built into... the system, I guess you could call it, and then there are expectations the composer sets up. And dissonance adds to the variety.

Dr. Dick – Without dissonance, the musical language would be pretty bland. It’s like spice in food: you might like pepper, but too much pepper can ruin the flavor, and yet without it, you might think it has no flavor at all.

Buzz – Yeah, I’ve eaten there before... So you’re saying that all music – well, most classical music – has a sense of stability and instability but that would really be an expectation we sense without needing to understand all these terms or how chords are built or used?

Dr. Dick – You can’t describe the rules of baseball or tell someone what’s going on in a game (if they’re not watching it) without using specific terms. Let’s face it, the inner language of something is meant for those with various levels of expertise: you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor if he didn’t understand the terms and functions of his profession, would you? Yet you don’t need to understand everything about how your body works when he tells you to take this medication so you’ll get better.

Buzz – True...

Dr. Dick – The whole thing is basically this: music (at least Western Classical Music) is made up of varying degrees of tension and release – and basically, dissonance is the tension you’re probably only aware of it if it doesn’t resolve. That’s why I prefer to think of dissonance as “unresolved tension.”

Buzz – But what about modern music with all those dissonant chords? It just sounds ugly.

Dr. Dick – Does it sound ugly because it never resolves or does it sound ugly because these are sounds you’re not familiar with? The interval of a Major 7th – let’s say C up to B – sounds dissonant because in the context of the 19th Century style, we expect that to resolve to an octave C. By itself, if it’s played loudly on the piano, it can sound unpleasant.

If it’s played softly by the strings of an orchestra as part of a chord, it can be quite different: Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings" (see the clip below - or rather "hear" this clip, below) has lots of chords with major 7ths in them, but they create the tension leading up to the chord’s resolution (listen to the first few chords, below: two of the first six chords have major 7ths in them). Without them, the piece wouldn’t be nearly as emotional: it’s what pulls you along as it pushes the harmony forward.

= = = = = =

= = = = = =

 Listen to how you feel when you reach those punctuation marks, the cadences where the music takes a breath at 0:22 and 0:50. But try pausing the music at 0:29 - does it sound "stable" or "unstable"? No, it has to resolve - it's unstable - and eventually the phrase winds out until it resolves at 0:50.

Buzz – Yeah, okay, Samuel Barber, consonant-sounding big lush Romantic composer, yeah... But what about, you know... those Atonal Guys.

Dr. Dick – Well, here you’re dealing with a system of organizing pitches – or maybe a lack of a system – which is different from the system you’re used to from the 19th Century. It's like a different language. Let’s say I write this wild-sounding chord – reading from the lowest notes to the highest: F-A-C-sharp-E-G-B-flat – with two major 7ths (F and E; B-flat and A), and two other dissonant intervals, C-sharp to G and E to B-flat (these are "tritones" which were once called "the devil in music"). At least it would sound wild if it showed up in the middle of a Beethoven symphony.

Actually, it does. Listen to the opening few seconds of the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, here:

= = = = = =

= = = = = =

You see how the conductor's facial expression helps prep the orchestra to play this chord? Really, it’s just a series of superimposed intervals that to a D minor tonic chord at the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th – talk about unexpected. Wham! Listen a little further and see how he contrasts this crazy opening bluster with the long theme played by just the cellos and basses alone. Then - Wham! - back comes the dissonant bluster... and so on...

(One critic, when he first heard this piece, said this opening reminded him of the dropping of a bag of nails.)

But if you only heard that first chord by itself, it would be even more jarring. And if it were to move to another chord equally jarring, then the tension begins to increase: the problem is, for many listeners – and in too many composers – the idea of writing a good dissonance is often wasted because there’s never any release of the tension and it eventually becomes irritating – like any constantly building tension that would give anyone a headache. But if the composer and the performers understand the inner rules of the music’s context, the idea of a dissonant chord resolving to a... well, “less dissonant chord” creates a sense of release.

Buzz – If not relief. Well, I guess it’s all relative and very subjective.

Dr. Dick – There are lots of other things to consider, of course, and many things to listen for in something unfamiliar, but accepting that it’s not Mozart or Brahms and that there are varying degrees of “repose” (thinking again of that person from 18th Century Vienna plunked down in the middle of Manhattan), it can be a first step toward getting over the Ugly Music Syndrome and evaluating it on its own terms.

Buzz – Well, okay. So how is that Mozart quartet I mentioned “dissonant”?

= = = = = =

= = = = = =

Dr. Dick – Well, speaking of tension, pause that chord at 0:07 - does it sound consonant (restful) or dissonant (active) to you? Probably because Mozart's listeners back in the 1780s had preconceived notions what music should do, he plays with their anticipations by avoiding the expected: instead of resolving as it should, one note veers off  to a note that doesn’t resolve the chord as they expected it - like a "deceptive" cadence - and so it keeps prolonging the tension and keeps postponing that anticipated release of tension.

It only resolves once the introduction ends (at 1:30) and the “movement proper” (the lively and far more expected “Allegro”) begins. You can't stop it at 1:30 and feel that it's fully resolved (this is one of those Dominant 7th chords I'd mentioned earlier) - but it sounds less active than any chord we've heard before so it seems relatively restful. But the real resolution happens at 1:32.

Here, Mozart’s first audience probably gave a collective “phew” when they landed on something they expected - finally! It’s like being lost and finally recognizing something familiar.

Buzz – OK, well... you’re the doctor. Hey, that’s right: I've been having this pain in my left side here and I was wondering if you could tell me...

Dr. Dick – Sure – take two Haydn symphonies and call me in the morning...

- Dick Strawser

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