What are consonance and dissonance in music?

Posted on November 22, 2022

The power of music relies a lot on its ability to create both pleasing feelings and ones that get the listener alert and tense. Not all sounds and music need, or should be, just easy listening and solely pleasant. This is where consonance and dissonance come into play. A good songwriter should know how to establish a balance between these two. Let’s look more closely at consonance, dissonance, and their purpose in music.

What are consonant and dissonant sounds?

In the context of music, the terms consonance and dissonance refer to sounds that are played together or after one another and the kind of experience they create in the listener. These two musical terms can refer to harmonies, chords, or intervals and how they sound.

However, the way consonance and dissonance are perceived has changed throughout the history of music, and what is considered consonant or dissonant can depend on one’s culture and musical experience. For example, someone who has grown up listening to Western popular music can experience the pleasing sounds of some other cultures as dissonant.

In order to explain these two terms and the difference between them, we need to look at consonance and dissonance together. Simply put, you can define consonance and dissonance as opposites where one cannot exist without the other. Consonance, for instance, refers to the absence of dissonant sounds, and dissonance refers to the lack of consonant sounds. While consonance represents balance and harmony, dissonance creates tension that needs to be resolved.

Let’s look at these two terms a bit more closely.

Consonant sounds

When notes and chords sound good and pleasing to the ear when played together, this effect is known as consonance. Establishing a balance between consonance and dissonance in music is important. By using consonance and dissonance together, a songwriter can produce truly memorable and catchy music.

Dissonant sounds

Dissonance can be used in music to create tension and a sense of anticipation. For the listener, it can seem as if the sounds do not fit together. However, songwriters will want to use dissonant sounds to create tension in their music, as long as this tension is resolved. This can be done by following up the dissonant sound with a consonant one. The listener may feel unease if the built-up tension is not released. However, sometimes this can be an intentional choice by the songwriter, although too much dissonance without a proper resolution will only annoy the listener.

What are consonant and dissonant intervals?

An interval refers to the distance in pitch between two sounds. Intervals can be either vertical or horizontal depending on if they are played simultaneously or one after the other. Intervals can also be described as consonant or dissonant depending on if they create a tension that needs to be resolved.

Consonant intervals

As mentioned, consonant intervals are ones that the listener would find pleasant and describe as harmonious and comfortable. Examples of consonant intervals include:

  • minor and major thirds
  • perfect fourths and fifths
  • minor and major sixths
  • the octave

Dissonant intervals

Dissonant intervals create the opposite effect to consonant ones. They can sound harsh, unstable, and demanding of a resolution. Examples of dissonant intervals include:

  • major and minor seconds
  • major and minor sevenths
  • major and minor ninths
  • the tritone

What is atonal music?

When the concepts of consonance and dissonance are discussed, the name Arnold Schoenberg often pops up. This is because of his unique way of using dissonance in his compositions. Because of his heavy use of dissonance, he received both praise and strong criticism from his contemporaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Schoenberg has been an important name in the creation of so-called atonal music. Atonality strays from the conventions of Western musical tradition by not adhering to the usual tonal hierarchies. In other words, there is an absence of a tonal center. This means that the music does not follow a minor or major key as listeners familiar with the Western tradition of music would expect. As a consequence, many listeners may find atonal music unpleasant and too experimental or foreign for their tastes.

Learn about consonance, dissonance, and other musical terms

Learn to speak the language of music theory with Yousician. Check out our entire guide to music terminology where we have collected some of the essential musical terms, including consonance and dissonance.

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