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"Consonance and Dissonance" written by Joanie Solaini (Acutonics Teacher and Practitioner, LLM,LLB, BA Mus)

“The last thing a fish knows is water”   

What a delicious pool to be diving in is this discussion of consonance and dissonance!  Deep and deceptively clear looking, it is impossible to fully describe.  We can map its edges and talk about where the pool meets the land. We can measure its various depths and make a topographical model of the bottom.  Chemical composition of the water can be analyzed, temperature readings made, electromagnetic fields assessed.   Fish, frogs and other life can be counted and studied. But none of it, no matter how detailed, or scholarly, or scientific or correct it may be, can completely tell us just what is this pool?  What is it to be immersed in this pool, what is it to wade into its middle?  What is its effect on us?  A fish would know the pool best of all yet would not be able to recognize the pool in which it lives in the terms we use above.  The only way to begin to know it is to engage with it, dive in, and just accept that all explanations eventually fall short. 

Of course we are the fish, made up of and existing in a constant bath of vibrations that are acting on us, through us, and with us all the time.  Just as the pool itself defies definition, all theories of Consonance and Dissonance, and why we perceive intervals the way we do, eventually break down before a complete explanation is reached.  It’s the ratio of the interval, it is the overtones of the two notes and how they interact, it’s the undertones of the notes, it’s our expectations, it’s the…all theories go some way to describe the phenomenon we call our perception of Consonance and Dissonance, but all fall short of complete explanation from a scientific point of view.  The complexity is exponential--one 3D geometry is interacting with another.  We feel there should be a complete explanation because many of us react to intervals in the same way, but is that due to physics or is that a result of cultural conditioning?  We are left withthe only definition that seems true: consonance describes intervals that seem settled and peaceful, and dissonance describes sounds we don’t like that have friction and buzz in them.

In spite of thecomplexity we leap to the assumption that Consonance is good and Dissonance is somehow less good or even bad.  Our vocabulary betrays this assumption—we want harmonious relations, we equate health and healing to harmony and disharmony to dis-ease.  Forgive me, this may be useful shorthand but this is far too simplistic a view of what is a highly subjective experience.  No two people will experience a sound in the same way.  What frequency might feed someone like it was aural brain-food might be completely lost on someone else who has lost their listening ability in the relevant part of their hearing spectrum.  Some people on the autistic spectrum, who have trouble filtering out irrelevant stimuli might be overwhelmed by the tick of a clock, the hum of florescent lights or even a bug crawling up the wall.  How people process sounds is affected by cultural conditioning, education and training, physical andneurological abilities and limitations, and even by what their mood may be on a particular day.  What is food for my soul might be irritating for someone else, and what is heartfelt and meaningful for someone else might be expressed in a musical vocabulary and at such volume as to be unbearable for me.   This is well known, it is a potent force that we are manipulated by daily. So tell me this, is a minor 2nd or tri-tone in the classical music I listen to more or less dissonant than a perfect 5th in a heavy metal piece?  Is a triumphant perfect 4th in a battle song (or wedding march!) more or less offensive than an aching major 7thin a love song?

We are trying to have this discussion by assuming aspects of the whole tell the entire story.  But the more we delve into the subject, the more complex and arbitrary it begins to seem.  Looking at what we know of our western musical development, we see that the scales we’ve developed are a result of a combination of physical properties of the dominant instruments, practicality of technique, popularity of particular instruments and scales (rise in popularity of keyboard instruments eventually bringing about tempered tuning), and, let’s not forget the huge rift in music history—edict, in the form of the Church resisting external pressures to reform and the resulting Council of Trent, which turned back centuries of musical development.  The acceptance of tempered tuning on a widescale basis resulted from the increased popularity of keyboard instruments.  Tempered tuning opened uppreviously  inaccessible tonal territory, allowing for a new compositional complexity and large-scale instrumental collaboration.  Our modern ears will never fully know  at what cost this expansion took place, but one does wonder whether the trend of European orchestras to tune up to A444Hz rather than A440Hz is an attempt to recapture some of the brilliance and vigor in Just Intonation, as opposed to the comparatively mutedand muddied Equal Temperament we are used to today.

It’s upsetting though, isn’t it, that pesky dissonance? It buzzes and spikes and refuses to settle in our bodies.  We have the uncomfortable sensation that the anchor attaching us to the tonal center is not so firmly fixed, and who knows what will happen if it is truly loose?  Who, indeed?  There is a reason that the Church was concerned about increasingly complex tunings and harmonies prior to the Council of Trent, for in dissonance there is potential for change; there is latent power in being able to tolerate ambiguity. 

In Acutonics we talk about the interval of the 5th as being a portal.  Indeed, in a western diatonic scale the 5thtone is called the dominant, it is the foundation of the next closest key tothe tonic.  Just a simple pivot, a little raising of a new leading tone and presto, we’re in new territory—very similar territory, but new nonetheless.  If the 5this a portal, a threshold to somewhere new, then dissonance is the passage.  From tonic key to dominant key it is a veryshort passage, but as complexity increases, the passage becomes more prolonged.

In musicalframework we usually move from consonance to dissonance and back toconsonance.  Like the Hero’s journey, wemove away from home, have a little adventure and come back home with the informationfrom whence we’ve been.  Most works, nomatter how far afield they’ve gone in terms of key, return to the tonal home,the tonic.  The journey may take anentire symphony to complete or it might be a simple song, but we go away and wecome back changed.  The passage, thejourney, the lessons, are contained in the dissonance.  To move from home, from the known to theunknown, we must shift—even if we don’t shift, if the tonic is static, thatbuilds up a different sort of tension and impetus, a type of stagnation thatcries out to be released.  The movementis a tension between the known and the desire to know more, whether fromcuriosity or necessity.  Either with joyor foreboding, we have to move forth.

I would arguethat it might as well be with joy and curiosity, since we pretty much have togo anyway.  We might as well embrace theimpetus of the journey with positive anticipations of the adventure ahead,because these are the times we are in. We can shun the dissonance in our lives, we can value onlyconsonance…but only for awhile.  Far, farbetter to see the fluidity of our times, to step towards it with open armsknowing the dissonance will resolve to consonance which will push forward intodissonance again and then resolve…somehow…we may not be able to see how justyet.  The possibilities, even justtonally speaking, are greater and more interesting than we’ve allowed ourselvesto see. 

If we apply thisthinking to our place in the world today, we can see that this tolerance of thepassage, the embracing of dissonance and uncertainty (though we may long forresolution and consonance eventually, and maybe be sentimental about what werecall as being the blissful consonant past) is a very good thing.  It is not necessary to read out the roll callof indicators of a planet in the midst of transformation, we read and hearabout them daily.  In this regard,dissonance is more than just a little jack hammer to break up stagnant energysomewhere in the body, being open to ambiguity is the key to the shift into thenew paradigm we are beginning to occupy.

So back to therefreshing pool we started with.  To knowwhat a pool is we must embrace many ways of understanding it and even thenaccept that we can only understand it as far as we can understand it, ourexperience is not the fish’s (and the fish really may not be interested in mineralcontent or surface tension).  Perhaps inanother dimension the various aspects of sound come together into a unifiedunderstanding, but not in this one.  Butisn’t that delightfully intriguing?!  Insome ways we are 2D Flatlanders and sound is the  3D sphere intersecting our “reality”.  Even so, look at how many different andeffective ways we all practice, knowing things don’t quite match in soundtheory by no means diminishes what we manage to do with it.  There is another step we can take and that isto move out beyond the yin/yang and differentiation of tones from thefundamental. Ultimately, it is all sound, and like water, sound is a potentcarrier of information.  Water mayremember, but sound forms and transforms.


Abbott, EdwinA.,  Flatland:A Romance in Many Dimensions, Dover Thrift Editions, 1992

Benson, David J.,Music: A Mathematical Offering, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Blade, James, Percussion Instruments and Their History,4th revised ed., Bold Strummer Ltd, 1992

Carey, Donna; deMuynck, Marjorie; Franklin, Ellen, Geltner, Gail; Acutonics:  There’s No Place Like Ohm, SoundHealing, Oriental Medicine, and the Cosmic Mysteries, 2ndEd.,  Devachan Press, 2007

Carey, Donna;Franklin, Ellen; Michelangelo; Ponton, Gail; From Galaxies to Cells:  Planetary Science, Harmony and Medicine;  Devachan Press, 2010

Duffin, Ross W., How Equal temperament Ruined Harmony (andWhy You Should Care); 2008

Groven PianoProject,

Huron, David,Ohio State University, School of Music

Extensiveinformation on Consonance and Dissonance, and the various theories of consonanceand dissonance

Kenyon, Tom

Tomatis, Alfred

As a little post script:  in direct answer to the question posed--have we invested too much in consonance—yes, of course would be my answer.  But not because I think one is better than the other, I simply see the immense value of using the entire palate available.   I say yes to the question posed because things have gone too far when a major practitioner stands up at a sound healing conference and says emphatically in a keynote speech that “dissonance should never be used on the body, never!”  Thi swas expressed baldly, without explanation or justification—quite bizarre.  In the long run I was grateful because that “huh??” moment that I had in response has led me to think about this issue ever since.  But I do think, as ethical and responsible practitioners, we need to be careful and respectful with what we say from a platform.   We all work in various ways, and it is easy to see that many people get very good results using many different methods and approaches.


Posted: 02 Dec 2011 By: Ellen Madono

Hi Ellen,
I am working with an acupunturist using Acutonic tuning forks like needles. The consonate forks seem to clearly release the qi, which she is doing. But the Om forks is all she really uses, in general. She totally rejects most of the dissonant forks. When I suggest them, she says this person is too Xu (yin and chi depleted) to be using those strong dissoant forks. They are only for the overdoing over producing types (Jitsu in Japanese), the opposite of the xu types. This is not what I am reading in any of your publications. She proves her point by showing using reflexology (finger strength testing), to show that the qi stopsa using the dissonant forks. She is always right because without the reflexology she is able to see the qi. She has 20 years of clinical experience and she can just see it. Anyway, I want to think my way around her tests. Actually using just the simple harmonies is very slow. I am repeating the ohm for many times to get the effects that she gets from needles. Really discouraging. I know this is not the right way to use the forks, but need to be able to disprove her. I mean physically disprove.

You can see Joannie's response here -

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