In music, consonance and dissonance are categorizations of simultaneous or successive sounds. Consonance is associated with sweetness, pleasantness, and acceptability; dissonance is associated with harshness, unpleasantness, or unacceptability.
The terms form a structural dichotomy in which they define each other by mutual exclusion: a consonance is what is not dissonant, and reciprocally. However, a finer consideration shows that the distinction forms a gradation, from the most consonant to the most dissonant. As Hindemith stressed, "The two concepts have never been completely explained, and for a thousand years the definitions have varied" (Hindemith 1942, p. 85).
The opposition can be made in different contexts:
In both cases, the distinction mainly concerns simultaneous sounds; if successive sounds are considered, their consonance or dissonance depends on the memorial retention of the first sound while the second sound (or pitch) is heard. For this reason, consonance and dissonance have been considered particularly in the case of Western polyphonic music, and the present article is concerned mainly with this case. Most historical definitions of consonance and dissonance since about the 16th century have stressed their pleasant/unpleasant, or agreeable/disagreeable character. This may be justifiable in a psychophysiological context, but much less in a musical context properly speaking: dissonances often play a decisive role in making music pleasant, even in a generally consonant context—which is one of the reasons why the musical definition of consonance/dissonance cannot match the psychophysiologic definition. In addition, the oppositions pleasant/unpleasant or agreeable/disagreeable evidence a confusion between the concepts of "dissonance" and of "noise". (See also Noise in music, Noise music and Noise (acoustic).)
While consonance and dissonance exist only between sounds and therefore necessarily describe intervals (or chords), such as the perfect intervals, which are often viewed as consonant (e.g., the unison and octave), Occidental music theory often considers that, in a dissonant chord, one of the tones alone is in itself deemed to be the dissonance: it is this tone in particular that needs "resolution" through a specific voice leading procedure. For example, in the key of C Major, if F is produced as part of the dominant seventh chord (G7, which consists of the pitches G, B, D and F), it is deemed to be "dissonant" and it normally resolves to E during a cadence, with the G7 chord changing to a C Major chord.
Consonances may include:
The definition of consonance has been variously based on experience, frequency, and both physical and psychological considerations (Myers 1904, p. 315). These include:
"A stable tone combination is a consonance; consonances are points of arrival, rest, and resolution."— Roger Kamien 2008, p. 41
An unstable tone combination is a dissonance; its tension demands an onward motion to a stable chord. Thus dissonant chords are "active"; traditionally they have been considered harsh and have expressed pain, grief, and conflict.— Roger Kamien 2008, p. 41
In Western music, dissonance is the quality of sounds that seems unstable and has an aural need to resolve to a stable consonance. Both consonance and dissonance are words applied to harmony, chords, and intervals and, by extension, to melody, tonality, and even rhythm and metre. Although there are physical and neurological facts important to understanding the idea of dissonance, the precise definition of dissonance is culturally conditioned—definitions of and conventions of usage related to dissonance vary greatly among different musical styles, traditions, and cultures. Nevertheless, the basic ideas of dissonance, consonance, and resolution exist in some form in all musical traditions that have a concept of melody, harmony, or tonality. Dissonance being the complement of consonance it may be defined, as above, as non-coincidence of partials, lack of fusion or pattern matching, or as complexity.
Additional confusion about the idea of dissonance is created by the fact that musicians and writers sometimes use the word dissonance and related terms in a precise and carefully defined way, more often in an informal way, and very often in a metaphorical sense ("rhythmic dissonance"). For many musicians and composers, the essential ideas of dissonance and resolution are vitally important ones that deeply inform their musical thinking on a number of levels.
Despite the fact that words like unpleasant and grating are often used to explain the sound of dissonance, all music with a harmonic or tonal basis—even music perceived as generally harmonious—incorporates some degree of dissonance. The buildup and release of tension (dissonance and resolution), which can occur on every level from the subtle to the crass, is partially responsible for what listeners perceive as beauty, emotion, and expressiveness in music.
The concept of dissonance does not belong to the domain of harmony as it is presented us by Nature [harmonic series], but is derived from voice leading [guidelines], which is an essential constituent of Art.
Understanding a particular musical style's treatment of dissonance—what is considered dissonant and what rules or procedures govern how dissonant intervals, chords, or notes are treated—is key in understanding that particular style. For instance, harmony is generally governed by chords, which are collections of notes defined as tolerably consonant by the style. (There is likely, however, to be a hierarchy of chords, with some considered more consonant and some more dissonant.) Any note that does not fall within the prevailing harmony is considered dissonant. A given style typically pays attention to how its musical structure approaches dissonance (in steps is less jarring, a leap is more jarring), and even more to how they resolve (almost always by step), to how they fit within the meter and rhythm (dissonances on strong beats are more emphatic, those on weaker beats less vital), and to how they lie within the phrase (dissonances tend to resolve at phrase's end).
Sharp dissonant intervals and chords play a prominent role in many traditional musical cultures. Vocal polyphonic traditions from Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Latvia, Georgia, Nuristan, some Vietnamese and Chinese minority singing traditions, Lithuanian sutartinės, some polyphonic traditions from Flores and Melanesia are predominantly based on the use of sharp dissonant intervals and chords. The most prominent dissonance in most of these cultures is the interval of the neutral second (which is between the minor and major seconds). This interval is known to create the maximum sharpness and is known in German ethnomusicology under the term "Schwebungsdiaphonie".
Musical styles are similar to languages, in that certain physical, physiological, and neurological facts create bounds that greatly affect the development of all languages. Nevertheless, different cultures and traditions have incorporated the possibilities and limitations created by these physical and neurological facts into vastly different, living systems of human language. Neither the importance of the underlying facts nor the importance of the culture in assigning a particular meaning to the underlying facts should be understated.
For instance, two notes played simultaneously but with slightly different frequencies produce a beating "wah-wah-wah" sound. Musical styles such as traditional European classical music consider this effect objectionable ("out of tune") and go to great lengths to eliminate it. Other musical styles such as Indonesian gamelan consider this sound an attractive part of the musical timbre and go to equally great lengths to create instruments that produce this slight "roughness" (Vassilakis 2005,).
Sensory dissonance and its two perceptual manifestations (beating and roughness) are both closely related to a sound signal's amplitude fluctuations. Amplitude fluctuations describe variations in the maximum value (amplitude) of sound signals relative to a reference point and are the result of wave interference. The interference principle states that the combined amplitude of two or more vibrations (waves) at any given time may be larger (constructive interference) or smaller (destructive interference) than the amplitude of the individual vibrations (waves), depending on their phase relationship. In the case of two or more waves with different frequencies, their periodically changing phase relationship results in periodic alterations between constructive and destructive interference, giving rise to the phenomenon of amplitude fluctuations.
Amplitude fluctuations can be placed in three overlapping perceptual categories related to the rate of fluctuation. Slow amplitude fluctuations (≈≤20 per second) are perceived as loudness fluctuations referred to as beating. As the rate of fluctuation is increased, the loudness appears constant, and the fluctuations are perceived as "fluttering" or roughness. As the amplitude fluctuation rate is increased further, the roughness reaches a maximum strength and then gradually diminishes until it disappears (≈≥75–150 fluctuations per second, depending on the frequency of the interfering tones).
Assuming the ear performs a frequency analysis on incoming signals, as indicated by Ohm's acoustic law (see Helmholtz 1885; Levelt and Plomp 1964,), the above perceptual categories can be related directly to the bandwidth of the hypothetical analysis filters (Zwicker, Flottorp, and Stevens 1957,; Zwicker 1961,). For example, in the simplest case of amplitude fluctuations resulting from the addition of two sine signals with frequencies f1 and f2, the fluctuation rate is equal to the frequency difference between the two sines |f1-f2|, and the following statements represent the general consensus:
Along with amplitude fluctuation rate, the second most important signal parameter related to the perceptions of beating and roughness is the degree of a signal's amplitude fluctuation, that is, the level difference between peaks and valleys in a signal (Terhardt 1974,; Vassilakis 2001,). The degree of amplitude fluctuation depends on the relative amplitudes of the components in the signal's spectrum, with interfering tones of equal amplitudes resulting in the highest fluctuation degree and therefore in the highest beating or roughness degree.
For fluctuation rates comparable to the auditory filter bandwidth, the degree, rate, and shape of a complex signal's amplitude fluctuations are variables that are manipulated by musicians of various cultures to exploit the beating and roughness sensations, making amplitude fluctuation a significant expressive tool in the production of musical sound. Otherwise, when there is no pronounced beating or roughness, the degree, rate, and shape of a complex signal's amplitude fluctuations remain important, through their interaction with the signal's spectral components. This interaction is manifested perceptually in terms of pitch or timbre variations, linked to the introduction of combination tones (Vassilakis 2001; Vassilakis 2005; Vassilakis 2007).
The beating and roughness sensations associated with certain complex signals are therefore usually understood in terms of sine-component interaction within the same frequency band of the hypothesized auditory filter, called critical band.
Two pitches moving from the interval of a Major 2nd to a unison
This file illustrates the roughness and beat oscillations that gradually reduce as the interval moves towards the unison.
In human hearing, the varying effect of simple ratios may be perceived by one of these mechanisms:
Generally, the sonance (i.e., a continuum with pure consonance at one end and pure dissonance at the other) of any given interval can be controlled by adjusting the timbre in which it is played, thereby aligning its partials with the current tuning's notes (or vice versa) (Sethares 2005, p. 1). The sonance of the interval between two notes can be maximized (producing consonance) by maximizing the alignment of the two notes' partials, whereas it can be minimized (producing dissonance) by mis-aligning each otherwise nearly aligned pair of partials by an amount equal to the width of the critical band at the average of the two partials' frequencies (Sethares 2005, p. 1; Sethares 2009,).
Controlling the sonance of more-or-less non-harmonic timbres in real time is an aspect of dynamic tonality. For example, in Sethares' piece C To Shining C (discussed here), the sonance of intervals is affected both by tuning progressions and timbre progressions.
The strongest homophonic (harmonic) cadence, the authentic cadence, dominant to tonic (D-T, V-I or V7-I), is in part created by the dissonant tritone(Benward & Saker 2003, p. 54) created by the seventh, also dissonant, in the dominant seventh chord, which precedes the tonic.
Musical instruments like bells and xylophones, called Idiophones, are played such that their relatively stiff, non-trivial mass is excited to vibration by means of a blow. This contrasts with violins, flutes, or drums, where the vibrating medium is a light, supple string, column of air, or membrane. The overtones of the inharmonic series produced by such instruments may differ greatly from that of the rest of the orchestra, and the consonance or dissonance of the harmonic intervals as well (Gouwens 2009, p. 3).
Dissonance has been understood and heard differently in different musical traditions, cultures, styles, and time periods. Relaxation and tension have been used as analogy since the time of Aristotle till the present (Kliewer 1975, p. 290).
One of the early composers known for use of dissonants was Monteverdi (Kempers and Bakker 1949, p. 14: "His use of dissonants was in contradiction to all known rules; his melodies showed unheard-of intervals; he even neglected the rules of counterpoint, secure in his conviction that the new subjective art form needed a new means of expression"). The use of dissonants was also practiced by Moscheles (Anon. 1826, p. 349: "It however appears, that Mr. Moscheles, according to the most esteemed writers and the rules of composition, is perfectly justified in writing it D flat. The D flat is here a diminished 7th, which, though a dissonant, is not necessarily resolved in all cases") and taught by Chopin (Eigeldinger, Howat, and Shohet 1988, p. 42: "Musical prosody and declamation; phrasing—Here are the chief practical directions as to expression which Chopin often repeated to his pupils: A long note is stronger, as is also a high note. A dissonant is likewise stronger, and equally so a syncopated note. The ending of a phrase, before a comma, or a stop, is always weak. If the melody ascends, one plays crescendo, if it descends, decrescendo. Moreover, notice must be taken of natural accents.)"
In Ancient Greece, armonia denoted the production of a unified complex, particularly one expressible in numerical ratios. Applied to music, the concept concerned how sounds in a scale or a melody fit together (in this sense, it could also concern the tuning of a scale) (Philip 1966, pp. 123–24). The term symphonos was used by Aristoxenus and others to describe the intervals of the fourth, the fifth, the octave and their doublings; other intervals were said diaphonos. This terminology probably referred to the Pythagorean tuning, where fourths, fifths and octaves (ratios 4:3, 3:2 and 2:1) were directly tunable, while the other degrees (other 3-prime ratios) could only be tuned by combinations of the preceding (Aristoxenus 1902, pp. 188–206 See Tenney 1988, pp. 11–12). Until the advent of polyphony and even later, this remained the basis of the concept of consonance/dissonance (symphonia/diaphonia) in Occidental theory.
In the early Middle Ages, the Latin term consonantia translated either armonia or symphonia. Boethius (6th century) characterizes consonance by its sweetness, dissonance by its harshness: "Consonance (consonantia) is the blending (mixtura) of a high sound with a low one, sweetly and uniformly (suauiter uniformiterque) arriving to the ears. Dissonance is the harsh and unhappy percussion (aspera atque iniocunda percussio) of two sounds mixed together (sibimet permixtorum)" (Boethius n.d., f. 13v.). It remains unclear, however, whether this could refer to simultaneous sounds. The case becomes clear, however, with Hucbald of Saint Amand (c900), who writes: "Consonance (consonantia) is the measured and concordant blending (rata et concordabilis permixtio) of two sounds, which will come about only when two simultaneous sounds from different sources combine into a single musical whole (in unam simul modulationem conveniant) […]. There are six of these consonances, three simple and three composite, […] octave, fifth, fourth, and octave-plus-fifth, octave-plus-fourth and double octave" (Hucbald n.d., p. 107; translated in Babb 1978, p. 19).
According to Johannes de Garlandia & 13th century:
One example of imperfect consonances previously considered dissonances in Guillaume de Machaut's "Je ne cuit pas qu'onques" (Machaut 1926, p. 13, Ballade 14, "Je ne cuit pas qu'onques a creature", mm. 27–31):
According to Margo Schulter (1997a):
It is worth noting that "perfect" and "imperfect" and the notion of being (esse) must be taken in their contemporaneous Latin meanings (perfectum, imperfectum) to understand these terms, such that imperfect is "unfinished" or "incomplete" and thus an imperfect dissonance is "not quite manifestly dissonant" and perfect consonance is "done almost to the point of excess". Also, inversion of intervals (major second in some sense equivalent to minor seventh) and octave reduction (minor ninth in some sense equivalent to minor second) were yet unknown during the Middle Ages.
Due to the different tuning systems compared to modern times, the minor seventh and major ninth were "harmonic consonances", meaning that they correctly reproduced the interval ratios of the harmonic series which softened a bad effect (Schulter 1997b). They were also often filled in by pairs of perfect fourths and perfect fifths respectively, forming resonant (blending) units characteristic of the musics of the time (Schulter 1997c), where "resonance" forms a complementary trine with the categories of consonance and dissonance. Conversely, the thirds and sixths were tempered severely from pure ratios, and in practice usually treated as dissonances in the sense that they had to resolve to form complete perfect cadences and stable sonorities (Schulter 1997d).
The salient differences from modern conception:
In Renaissance music, the perfect fourth above the bass was considered a dissonance needing immediate resolution. The regola delle terze e seste ("rule of thirds and sixths") required that imperfect consonances should resolve to a perfect one by a half-step progression in one voice and a whole-step progression in another (Dahlhaus 1990, p. 179). The viewpoint concerning successions of imperfect consonances—perhaps more concerned by a desire to avoid monotony than by their dissonant or consonant character—has been variable. Anonymous XIII (13th century) allowed two or three, Johannes de Garlandia's Optima introductio (13th-14th century) three, four or more, and Anonymous XI (15th century) four or five successive imperfect consonances. Adam von Fulda (Gerbert 1784, 3:353) wrote "Although the ancients formerly would forbid all sequences of more than three or four imperfect consonances, we more modern do not prohibit them."
In the common practice period, musical style required preparation for all dissonances, followed by a resolution to a consonance. There was also a distinction between melodic and harmonic dissonance. Dissonant melodic intervals included the tritone and all augmented and diminished intervals. Dissonant harmonic intervals included:
Thus, Western musical history can be seen as progressing from a limited definition of consonance to an ever-wider definition of consonance. Early in history, only intervals low in the overtone series were considered consonant. As time progressed, intervals ever higher on the overtone series were considered as such. The final result of this was the so-called "emancipation of the dissonance" (Schoenberg 1975, pp. 258–64) by some 20th-century composers. Early-20th-century American composer Henry Cowell viewed tone clusters as the use of higher and higher overtones (Cowell 1969, pp. 111–39).
Despite the fact that this idea of the historical progression towards the acceptance of ever greater levels of dissonance is somewhat oversimplified and glosses over important developments in the history of Western music, the general idea was attractive to many 20th-century modernist composers and is considered a formative meta-narrative of musical modernism.
Composers in the Baroque era were well aware of the expressive potential of dissonance:
Bach uses dissonance to communicate religious ideas in his sacred cantatas and Passion settings. At the end of the St Matthew Passion, where the agony of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion is portrayed, John Eliot Gardiner (2013, 427) hears "a final reminder of this comes in the unexpected and almost excruciating dissonance Bach inserts over the very last chord: the melody instruments insist on B natural—the jarring leading tone—before eventually melting in a C minor cadence."
In the opening aria of Cantata BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde("upon sin oppose resistance"), nearly every strong beat carries a dissonance:
Albert Schweizer says that this aria “begins with an alarming chord of the seventh… It is meant to depict the horror of the curse upon sin that is threatened in the text" (Schweizer 1905, 53). Gillies Whittaker (1959, 368) points out that “The thirty-two continuo quavers of the initial four bars support four consonances only, all the rest are dissonances, twelve of them being chords containing five different notes. It is a remarkable picture of desperate and unflinching resistance to the Christian to the fell powers of evil.”
According to H.C. Robbins Landon, the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, "a brilliant C major work in the best tradition" contains "dissonances of barbaric strength that are succeeded by delicate passages of Mozartean grace." (Landon 1955, p. 415):
Mozart's music contains a number of quite radical experiments in dissonance. The following comes from his Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546:
Mozart’s Quartet in C major, K465 opens with an adagio introduction that gave the work its nickname, the “Dissonance Quartet”:
There are several passing dissonances in this adagio passage, for example on the first beat of bar 3. However the most striking effect here is implied, rather than sounded explicitly. The A flat in the first bar is contradicted by the high A natural in the second bar, but these notes do not sound together as a discord. (See also False relation.)
An even more famous example from Mozart comes in a magical passage from the slow movement of his popular "Elvira Madigan" Piano Concerto 21, K467, where the subtle, but quite explicit dissonances on the first beats of each bar are enhanced by exquisite orchestration:
Philip Radcliffe (1978, 52) speaks of this as “a remarkably poignant passage with surprisingly sharp dissonances." Radcliffe says that the dissonances here "have a vivid foretaste of Schumann and the way they gently melt into the major key is equally prophetic of Schubert." Eric Blom (1935, p. 226) says that this movement must have "made Mozart's hearers sit up by its daring modernities... There is a suppressed feeling of discomfort about it."
The finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 opens with a startling discord, consisting of a B flat inserted into a D minor chord:
Roger Scruton (2009, 101) alludes to Wagner’s description of this chord as introducing “a huge Schreckensfanfare—horror fanfare.” When this passage returns later in the same movement (just before the voices enter) the sound is further complicated with the addition of a diminished seventh chord, creating, in Scruton’s words “the most atrocious dissonance that Beethoven ever wrote, a first inversion D minor triad containing all the notes of the D minor harmonic scale”:
Robert Schumann’s song ‘Auf Einer Burg’from his cycle Liederkreis Op. 39, climaxes on a striking dissonance in the fourteenth bar. As Nicholas Cook (1987, p. 242) points out, this is “the only chord in the whole song that Schumann marks with an accent.” Cook goes on to stress that what makes this chord so effective is Schumann’s placing of it in its musical context: “in what leads up to it and what comes of it.” Cook explains further how the interweaving of lines in both piano and voice parts in the bars leading up to this chord (bars 9-14) “are set on a kind of collision course; hence the feeling of tension rising steadily to a breaking point.”
Richard Wagner made increasing use of dissonance for dramatic effect as his style developed, particularly in his later operas. In the scene known as "Hagen’s Watch" from the first act of Götterdämmerung, according to Scruton (2016, p. 127) the music conveys a sense of "matchless brooding evil", and the excruciating dissonance in bars 9–10 below it constitute "a semitonal wail of desolation".
Taruskin (2005, 23) parses this chord (in bars 206 and 208) as a “diminished nineteenth… a searingly dissonant dominant harmony containing nine different pitches. Who knows what Guido Adler, for whom the second and Third Symphonies already contained ‘unprecedented cacophonies’, might have called it?”
One example of modernist dissonance comes from a work that received its first performance in 1913, three years after the Mahler:
The West's progressive embrace of increasingly dissonant intervals occurred almost entirely within the context of harmonic timbres, as produced by vibrating strings and columns of air, on which the West's dominant musical instruments are based. By generalizing Helmholtz's notion of consonance (described above as the "coincidence of partials") to embrace non-harmonic timbres and their related tunings, consonance has recently been "emancipated" from harmonic timbres and their related tunings (Milne, Sethares, and Plamondon 2007,; Milne, Sethares, and Plamadon 2008,; Sethares et al. 2009,). Using electronically controlled pseudo-harmonic timbres, rather than strictly harmonic acoustic timbres, provides tonality with new structural resources such as Dynamic tonality. These new resources provide musicians with an alternative to pursuing the musical uses of ever-higher partials of harmonic timbres and, in some people's minds, may resolve what Arnold Schoenberg described as the "crisis of tonality" (Stein 1953,).
George Russell, in his 1953 Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, presents a slightly different view from classical practice, one widely taken up in Jazz. He regards the tritone over the tonic as a rather consonant interval due to its derivation from the Lydian dominant thirteenth chord (Russell 2008, p. 1).
In effect, he returns to a Medieval consideration of "harmonic consonance": that intervals when not subject to octave equivalence (at least not by contraction) and correctly reproducing the mathematical ratios of the harmonic series are truly non-dissonant. Thus the harmonic minor seventh, natural major ninth, half-sharp eleventh note (untempered tritone), half-flat thirteenth note, and half-flat fifteenth note must necessarily be consonant. Octave equivalence (minor ninth in some sense equivalent to minor second, etc.) is no longer unquestioned.
Note that most of these pitches exist only in a universe of microtones smaller than a halfstep; notice also that we already freely take the flat (minor) seventh note for the just seventh of the harmonic series in chords. Russell extends by approximation the virtual merits of harmonic consonance to the 12TET tuning system of Jazz and the 12-note octave of the piano, granting consonance to the sharp eleventh note (approximating the harmonic eleventh), that accidental being the sole pitch difference between the Major scale and the Lydian mode.
(In another sense, that Lydian scale representing the provenance of the tonic chord (with major seventh and sharp fourth) replaces or supplements the Mixolydian scale of the dominant chord (with minor seventh and natural fourth) as the source from which to derive extended tertian harmony.)
Dan Haerle, in his 1980 The Jazz Language (Studio 224 1980, p. 4), extends the same idea of harmonic consonance and intact octave displacement to alter Paul Hindemith's Series 2 gradation table from The Craft of Musical Composition (Hindemith & 1937–70, 1:). In contradistinction to Hindemith, whose scale of consonance and dissonance is currently the de facto standard, Haerle places the minor ninth as the most dissonant interval of all, more dissonant than the minor second to which it was once considered by all as octave-equivalent. He also promotes the tritone from most-dissonant position to one just a little less consonant than the perfect fourth and perfect fifth.
For context: unstated in these theories is that musicians of the Romantic Era had effectively promoted the major ninth and minor seventh to a legitimacy of harmonic consonance as well, in their fabrics of 4-note chords (Tymoczko 2011, p. 106).