What Is Musical Dissonance?

Version 2When I was a high school student, I was sure I knew what dissonance in music was. If it sounded wrong, it was dissonant, and if it sounded right, it was consonant. An interval of a 2nd, or a try tone, or a seventh was dissonant, and all the others were consonant. Then in college, I learned that a perfect 4th is dissonant, though it still sounded fine to me. But that was the first hint that something was amiss with my definition. If an interval that sounded right to me was dissonant, then I needed a new understanding of the concept. In my discussion of expectations (see “Is All Music Intended to Be Expressive?”), I mentioned Meyer’s thoughts on continuance and repose. Music that demands continuance, or “leaves us hanging” creates tension, whereas music that comes to rest harmonically, as at a full cadence, expresses repose or relaxation.

Once of the expectations Western listeners have is that tension will resolve into relaxation. We are accustomed to patterns of tension and relaxation in our music. This is the basis for traditional voice leading and harmonic progressions. Ornaments such as suspensions, appagiaturas, trills, and so forth create tension because they sound incomplete, as one who stops in the middle of a sentence. We know from our experience with grammar that there has to be more to that sentence, and we know from our experience with music that there has to be more to that musical phrase, more music that will bring us to that cadence, that musical punctuation of a comma, semi-colon, or period. It is that expectation, even necessity of the music continuing on to a more suitable pausing or stopping place that makes the present moment sound dissonant.

In framing dissonance in this way, I am essentially equating dissonance with continuance. The unresolved suspension is not dissonant because it sounds “wrong,” it sounds dissonant because it leaves us demanding more. Dissonance is unfulfilled expectation. It is a form of anxiety similar to what we experience when we worriedly await the outcome of some life event. That anxious, stressed feeling is akin to how our body reacts to dissonance in music.

Zatorre and Blood (1999) at McGill University created original melodies containing dissonant and consonant patterns of notes, and played them for ten volunteers who were  scanned at the same time. Rejecting the null hypothesis, dissonance made areas of the limbic system linked to unpleasant emotions light up in the PET scans, whereas the consonant melodies stimulated limbic structures associated with pleasure. In other words, music elicits the same emotional response in the human brain as non-musical events with the same emotional makeup. So our experience of dissonance is larger than a response limited to musical stimuli. Our perception of musical dissonance is a parallel response to other life experiences.

In The Harvard Dictionary of Music we find that dissonance represents the “element of disturbance and tension.” While tension can, as we have seen, be framed within unsatisfied or delayed expectations, disturbance is a dangerously subjective idea. Listeners are disturbed by different sounds to different degrees. We must also consider that what was once considered dissonant to musicians and audiences alike are now accepted as less so or even consonant now. There is a phrase in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which the choir sings the text “drank from the sacred vessels.” “Drank from the” is set to a minor 2nd, “sacred ves-” to a major 2nd, and “-sels” to a minor third. Though the 2nds are by some definitions dissonance, they are to my ear delectable and beautiful in the sense that the imminent resolution is so quickly realized and from the extreme “disturbance” of the minor 2nd. In this, we might consider that dissonance may be determined in part by its duration prior to its resolution. The longer the disturbance remains, the more likely it is to be perceived as dissonance. Dissononances that occupy short time spans may be less apt to be perceived as dissonant because they are more closely associated or attached to their resolutions. This is why a suspension can seem more consonant than an escape tone, wherein the resolution by skip obscures the tranquility of the resolution.

Some have attempted to define dissonance as any interval not included in the prevailing diatonic scale.  As long as diatonicism is the standard for measuring consonance or dissonance, this definition is at least serviceable. But it is rendered inappropriate for atonal works. Hindemith (1900) breached this issue by putting forth a ranking of melodic intervals from most consonant to most dissonant. This ranking was P5, P4, M6, M3, m3, m6, M2, m7, m2, M7, TT. Hindemith believed that consonance and dissonance could be perceived as a kind of floating standard, constantly defined by the current interval regardless of overall tonal center or lack there of. Still, there are vestiges of traditional harmony in his ranking, because the first 4 intervals are all diatonic and all part of the tonic, dominant, or subdominant chords. Hindemith believed that we shifted our perception of tonal center according to intervallic relationships when interval roots were non-diatonic.

This theory allowed for writing in the 12-tone style without abandoning tonality. Tones that are lowest, highest, and longest are given greatest importance in a melodic progression. These tones then are constructed to form step-wise motion, no matter their separation from one another by intervening tones. The interval of the fifth, being the most consonant, is also the strongest harmonically. It’s occurrence over changing roots can thus alter the perceived tonal center, whereas intervals gradually loose their ability to establish tonal centers according to their increased property of dissonance. To state it in terms of our overall discussion, the perfect 5th has the least power of continuance and the highest degree of repose, and so functions as a tonic in traditional harmony. As intervals become more dissonant, they gain greater power of continuance and lessening degrees of repose, and so add tension as well as distance from a perceived tonal center. Listen to this example from Hindemith, and see how much of our discussion you can take away.


Blood, A. J., Zatorre, R. J., Bermudez, P., & Evans, A. C. (January 01, 1999). Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 4, 382-7.

Hindemith, P. (1900). The craft of musical composition. Mainz: Schott.

Is All Music Intended To Be Expressive?

Version 2I am asked from time to time if all music is created with expressive intent. The National Arts Standards seem to imply so, because they set students to interpreting and determining expressive intent with no restrictions or qualifiers concerning to what music this applies. Elsewhere I have discussed the problems of knowing what a composer’s creative intent is; that without directly asking the composer, we can only surmise what his or her creative intent might have been, using a consensus of listeners and experts to lead the way. But it may be immaterial whether or not the composer intended to express something, because music itself is perceived as expressive, regardless of what a composer had in mind.

There are properties in music that stimulate cognitive activity that releases emotions. Much of this emotional response is dependent on making predictions and then enjoying the stimulation that results from the fulfillment of those predictions being delayed or confounded. Mohana (2016) explained that

Music, though it appears to be similar to features of language, is more rooted in the primitive brain structures that are involved in motivation, reward and emotion. Whether it is the first familiar notes of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” or the beats preceding AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” the brain synchronizes neural oscillators with the pulse of the music (through cerebellum activation), and starts to predict when the next strong beat will occur. The response to ‘groove’ is mainly unconscious; it is processed first through the cerebellum and amygdala rather than the frontal lobes.

Music involves subtle violations of timing and, because we know through experience that music is not threatening, these violations are ultimately identified by the frontal lobes as a source of pleasure. The expectation builds anticipation, which, when met, results in the reward reaction.

Meyer (1956) in his seminal work Emotion and Meaning in Music  argued that music was a dynamic process, constantly presenting the listener with patterns of sounds that demanded continuation, or that came to rest. According to Krumhansl (2002),

Meyer proposed that expectations play the central psychological role in musical emotions. Some points in the music engender strong expectations for continuation, creating a sense of tension and instability. Other points in the music fulfill expectations, and units are perceived as closed off and completed. Musical meaning and emotion depend on how the actual events in the music play against this background of expectations.

So the answer to our question, is all music intended to be expressive, may well be found in the degree to which a composer consciously or intentionally manipulates repetition and variety so that expectations, which are learned from experience and enculturation, are satisfied, delayed or left unmet. A musical work that is one beautiful, sonorous melody after another may sound beautiful, romantic or lush to many listeners, but if expectations are constantly met without exception or variation, then it is more likely than not that the composer was not so much intending to express emotions as present beautiful music. Indeed, beauty in and of itself is not an emotion, but a trait that is perceived but not felt or experienced as an emotion is. This harkens back to the concept of aesthetic response where the listener perceives beauty in an artistic work, but that perception is purely objective. Any emotion perceived in music where all expectations are always fulfilled without delay can only express the one emotion of repose. Without delayed or unfulfilled expectation, there can be no tension and no expression of emotions that are disturbing, scary, exciting or other such emotions. On the other hand, music that is nothing but seemingly random sounds cannot be expressive of emotions that are restful and calming because there are no satisfied expectations. While such musical works could be intended to express only a single emotion, it is just as likely that the composer was intent on writing in a particular style, such as 12-tone or minimalism, and accepted the inherent emotional limitations of those styles, exchanging some expressive potential for compositional technique.

This principle can be seen in the general intent of composers in the Classic period (c. 1750-1820) compared to the Romantic period (c. 1820-1900). In the Classic style, which largely harkened back to classic Greek styles, balance and carefully proportioned phrases, themes, theme groups, sections and movements were given priority. It is not that composers such as Mozart tried to avoid being expressive with their music, it is just that wearing their emotions on their sleeves was not the purpose of writing music in the 18th century. The music itself is mostly predictable, true to the classic forms. When unusual musical events occur within a work, they are the exception. Compare this to the music of the Romantics in the 19th century. One can find innovation and new musical frontiers almost everywhere on the musical landscape. Composers such as Liszt, Pagannini, Richard Strauss and of course Wagner excited audiences with musical innovations, shows of brilliant virtuosity not seen before, and a shifting, difficult to predict harmonic language that made long time-spans of building tension possible for the first time. The level of tensions and angst were great in these works, as was the sense of relief and satisfaction when all came to rest peacefully or triumphantly on that perhaps lately hard to find or altogether missing tonic chord. The difference in expressive intent between the Mozarts and the Wagners of music history cannot be overlooked, and it is all a matter of in Mozart’s case the absence of unfulfilled or delayed expectations, and in Wagner’s case, the abundance of them.

Is all music intended to be expressive? Though his quips were sometimes hard to distinguish from his truths, Stravinsky once said that, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”

We can conclude at the very least that not all music is meant to be to the same degree expressive. While it seems evident that much of the great musicians would not agree with Stravinsky’s evaluation, his remarks indicate that perhaps at least that one great musical genius had no expressive intent whatsoever. If this is so, we must conclude that not all music is intended to be expressive. Though I wonder how many, like myself, find much of Stravinsky’s music highly expressive, his remarks not withstanding. If manipulating listener expectations is a composer writing expressiveness into the music, than surely there are some delayed and frustrated expectations one runs across while listening to Stravinsky’s music. It does seem safe to say that the more experienced and enculturated one is with a given musical idiom, the more able one is to form expectations as to what will happen in that music. It follows that with a heightened ability to form expectations, comes an increased power in the music to manipulate those expectations. Perhaps the degree to which a musical work is expressive depends as much on the listener’s ability to make predictions about it as on what the composer actually wrote or even intended.

Meyer, L. B. (1956). Emotion and meaning in music. Chicago, Ill. [u.a.: Univ. of Chicago Press.