by Lauren Hill
Dissonance pervades our world. Tensions and conflict can tear apart the perceived stability of our lives, shifting harmony and order into a harsh cacophony of sound. In relation to psychology, cognitive dissonance can be explained as the inner mental conflict which results from simultaneously holding contradictory and incongruous beliefs; in order to preserve stability and balance in our conceptions of the world and ourselves, these differences must be reconciled. In music, while we may often think of dissonance as jarring, the reality of it is a subtler concept.
Dissonance has always been an integral part of our musical culture as it contributes to the power of music to express intense and profound emotion. It is those wonderful moments of suspended dissonance, where tension builds and resolves onto the anticipated chord, which breathe the life into the music. Take for example the distinctive, chromatic dissonance of the Tristan chord from Wagner’s ‘Prelude’ to Tristan und Isolde which is left unresolved, prolonging the poignant sense of pain and yearning. Or the impressionistic dissonance of Debussy which is essential in his creation of such vivid colours and sound worlds. At times, dissonance can sound extremely harsh and discordant: think of the pulsing chords of Stravinsky’s ‘Dance of the Adolescents’ from The Rite of Spring which sparked so much outrage at its 1913 premiere.
However, dissonance (and its inevitable resolution) is also found balanced in the Classical aesthetics of Mozart’s music. The use of tension and its release has been an important part of music throughout all time, although the freer approach to dissonance is a relatively modern development: around the turn of the twentieth century, alongside the rise of modernism and expressionism across all the arts, dissonance in music took a new direction. Schoenberg’s infamous concept of the ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ demanded that we ‘free’ music from the restrictions of traditional, hierarchical harmony. The birth of a new, modern musical language and his twelve-tone technique of serialist musical composition indelibly marked music history. Composers since then have responded to this in different ways.
Perhaps dissonance is something intrinsic to human perception: the reason why some harmonic intervals are deemed consonant and others dissonant can be explained to some extent by mathematical ratios of the frequencies of pitches. Yet our perceptions of dissonance can also be a deeply subjective experience, or something which is shaped by our shared cultural memory. Fundamentally, a dissonant chord sounds unstable and fragile; it demands to be resolved. This very same dissonance (or ‘disagreement in sound’) which seems like harsh, discordant noise strives to be resolved into harmony, beauty and order.
In this way, if there is dissonance and chaos, there is also fullness of life. Without its existence, it could be argued that it would be impossible to fully appreciate moments of perfect consonance and harmony between ourselves and the world: the way the morning sunlight illuminates the glistening beauty of Oxford and its dreaming spires; warm evenings spent with friends; and that vague, indescribable feeling that, despite the fragility and uncertainty of the future, everything will somehow be okay, just as the sound of instability will resolve into consonant harmony.