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AUTHOR ARTICLE
Posted:
27 Oct 2011
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Clement Jewitt

Dissonance


All music consists of tension and release, the tension of dissonance released into consonance. Without this bipolarity there is no music (that's a bit bald, but I'll stick with it). The Medieval Church authorities claimed they were achieving a godly consonance, but they were not (though their strictures were likely more to do with fear of the new and countering defiance of authority). The only true consonances are unison, and the octave. The perfect fifth is next best, but listened to carefully with very open ears there is a slight frisson even there (I refer to pure  intervals), and there is a gradation of dissonance through the rest of the intervals.  Even our much loved third, held now to be thoroughly consonant, was officially regarded as a dissonant interval for a couple of centuries after Leonin and Perotin began experimenting with overlapping lines of chant in 12thC Paris. How our ears do evolve, if that's what happened . . .


The case of plainchant is instructive. It is a pattern of movement away from and back to consonance with the Final, the fundamental note of the mode. Without that note sounded as a drone, aural memory is needed to supply the pattern of tension and release with the Final. That memory does not need to be completely conscious to supply musical effect, though better if the listener does have a clear sense of the Final in hir head. I have my private suspicions (for which there is probably not an iota of evidence) that in the remote past, when European plainchant was less disconnected from its older world roots, it would have been chanted to a drone, and an octave (or more?) lower, which would bring it into line with many other chant traditions around the world. Recordings of Victorians speaking indicate that they were all residing in their heads - speaking high in the head voice, where far more people in our day speak nearer to or in the chest voice. So naturally when it came to resurrecting the Gregorian chant they placed the tessitura high.


But even the history of drone is unclear. The very long story of Indian musics suggests that the use of drones was a relatively late introduction, that chants were sung alone in earlier times. Does that imply that the hearing of the ancients was somehow finer than in more recent times? That must be true referencing our current noise polluted soi disant civilization where most of us have lost the finer nuances of the hearing organism. Or was it simply a brilliant invention? Even so, the rise and fall of the sung line has always carried its dissonance/consonance messages, however attenuated the hearers' consciousness of it, and that is true of the heard profile of any musics. Similarly, in diatonic, and also in atonal music, a long held note will tend to take on the character of a pedal approaching a cadence (something atonal composers have to beware of!), the fifth yearning for completion at its tonic. Which means it is not heard as a consonance with that tonic, sounding or not.


So dissonance is an integral part of musics. What we use the word for changes through time, naturally, as music evolves. Most of us now would not use it for intervals of fifths, fourths, thirds. And since the bold step taken by Wagner of treating the minor seventh chord as more than just a cadential device, we might consider that interval to be consonant too. Some used to hearing more recent musics might also declare that the interval of a major second, compared with the minor second, is consonant. Certainly a sequence of minor second followed by major second has the feeling of release from tension.  It's all relative. Some of the oldest known folk music, from the eastern edges of what is now Hungary, exhibits sequences of parallel major seconds, memory tells me: in some sense the harmonic equivalent of the sharp biting vocal edges of traditional singing in parts of the Middle East.


For musics specifically tailored for therapy/healing with sound, the points made above still apply, even though the sound therapist may be consciously avoiding the sharper dissonances in circumstances which require as much consonance as possible, such as keeping a patient in unconsciousness for medical purposes while the music/sounds are aimed at providing healing resonances. Where, as can happen in classical music therapy, the client needs to express deep emotional distress, s/he may well instinctively create strongly dissonant music to 'amp up' the tension within in order to trigger the healing release.


As for the equal tempered scale and its compromised pitches, naturally these supply their own additions to the dissonances. Or do they, in all circumstances? Interestingly, it is apparent from studies done on singers that in the live performance auditors 'forgive' quite wide variations from ideal pitches in passing notes, in many cases much wider than the equal temperament compromises.  Similarly, in Indian rãg performances, where traditionally each performer has hir own tuning protocols, it is (maybe more 'was' in view of modern communications) not uncommon to hear a familiar rãg with distorted intervals. But 'distorted' is the wrong word where the performer is sufficiently accomplished, for then auditors happily accept the musicality of the performance, not finding the distorted intervals dissonant in themselves, but part and parcel of that performers musical essence.  Not so in recordings, however.  I feel the difference is that in live performances players and audience are connected in more than the sounds, they are also bound together in the emotional, or even spiritual, ambience of the performance occasion, which is not present on recordings listened to privately.  Something to do with the ways in which we are a social species, and parallel to the way the talking cure therapist picks up the otherwise hidden emotional state of the client.  There also appears to be somewhat less tolerance of pitch inequalities in western instrumental playing.  Primacy of the voice? Or past the tolerance level of equal temperament tuning?


So the answer to the question 'what is our reaction to dissonance?' is entirely context dependent.  I can, like anyone else, find the roar of city centre traffic intolerably dissonant.  But given some space away from it, perhaps inside an adjacent building where there is some attenuation, I can also hear it meditatively as part of the sounds of the 'city symphony', with its wide band background drone and foreground louder vehicles with different pitch engine noises sounding the Doppler effect as they pass, punctuated by hootings of various pitches, and maybe in a slight lull in the traffic, the sounds of birds flying past.  Etc, etc. 


There are people who assert that 'there is no dissonance in Bach' (I've heard one or two), whereas anyone with a modicum of musicality knows that Johann Sebastian's music is absolutely rife with major seconds, expressed also as minor sevenths and major ninths, and not a few minor seconds and derivatives too, all part of the to and fro rhythms of tension and relaxation which are the lifeblood of music.  The same persons who hear no dissonance in Bach are quite likely to complain loudly at the same intervals in (usually) later musics, say, Beethoven's . . . !


Whether we hear dissonance or not is also instrument dependent.  Complex chords played on a harpsichord sound far less discordant that the same chords played on a modern piano, as witness the astonishingly modernistic one-chord-on-top-of-another in the harpsichord music of J.S.Bach's exact contemporary Domenico Scarlatti. The heard difference is in the relative prominence of the overtones.  And here we might note that the harmonic overtone sequence produces its own dissonances against the fundamental note, from the seventh upwards, at first the odd numbered harmonics.  Interestingly, however, they do not sound dissonant at their natural pitch distances from the fundamental, eg the seventh is two octaves and a flattened minor seventh from the fundamental.  Take them down into the same octave, and they do sound dissonant.  Another context to note in this discourse: octave separation eases the apparent dissonance.


Rudolf Steiner related the intervals in an octave to consciousness, the journey from internality to engagement externally.  This seems a good way to finish this little article.  I am indebted to music therapist and wise-woman Sarah Verney-Caird for what follows, for she put it together as shown here.


Single tone:                        Absolute rest. Inner experience


Minor second:                     Something begins to move. Still an inner activity or movement, remaining within the self.


Major second:                      Activity increases. Carries inner movement further. Disturbance wishes to find rest.


Minor third:                        Experience of inner balance.Still an inner experience, leaning back to the second, from whence it came.


Major third:                        No longer leans back. An important statement of inner balance. Positive. An expression of inner self. "Music comes from within".


Perfect fourth:                      Inner movement, but reaching towards the outside. Taking a first step towards the outer relationship.


Augmented fourth (tritone):    Possibility of choice. Could withdraw or take a step to the fifth. Courage required to face an outer experience with which one can relate.


Fifth:                                 Putting out a hand. Facing an outer experience.


Minor/major sixth:              Both continuing to move out. The major sixth is a still greater step outwards.


Minor seventh:                   Tension between oneself and the outside world.


Major seventh:                   The height of being outside the self. Tension reaches its highest point.


Octave:                             The ego is caught in relation to outer experience. Fulfillment.


October 27/28th, 2011, Clement Jewitt.

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