Dissonance in Music: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Dissonance in Music
  • 2:01 Dissonance in Classical Music
  • 3:16 Dissonance in Popular Music
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
Dissonance is a sound created when two discordant notes are played in unison. Examples of dissonance in music can be found in the work of Beethoven, Chopin and Nirvana, as we'll learn in this lesson.

Dissonance in Music

Have you ever heard the sound a cat makes when it lands on a piano keyboard? If you have, did you react like this child?

Dissonance

Dissonance refers to discordant sounds or a lack of harmony in music. If the two notes in this staff are played simultaneously, they'll produce a dissonant sound:

Dissonant Sound of the 1st and 2nd Played At Once

Although dissonance in music may make some listeners feel uneasy, it ultimately helps to create tension and a sense of motion in compositions. You can compare musical dissonance to the conflict between characters in a story. The tension builds and rises to a peak, and then is resolved by the story's calm conclusion. Dissonance in music is often, but not always, followed by harmonic resolution in musical pieces.

Consonance, or harmony, refers to complementary sounds in music. If you hear two or more consonant notes together or in a musical progression, you'll most likely find the combination of sounds pleasant to the ear, like the chord, or group of notes, shown in this scale:

Chord

This result of playing notes together and whether the sounds are consonant or dissonant, has to do with whether or not the tones produced are at regular or irregular intervals. In the case of the chord with even changes in pitch, the use of every other tone sounds harmonious. When the change in pitch is uneven and doesn't follow a pattern, the interval is irregular and sounds as if someone played a wrong note. However, dissonance is a tool used by composers to achieve a certain effect or mood in listeners; it can be used to create and escalate excitement.

Dissonance in music is a matter of degree. Different combinations of notes can sound more dissonant or more harmonious. The use of the natural 7th in music is only slightly dissonant as compared to the sound made by banging on a piano randomly, as with our previous example of the cat landing on the piano keyboard.

Dissonance in Classical Music

Both baroque and classical music use dissonance to build tension and achieve resolution in compositions. Bach used dissonant chord progressions in his Fugue in C-Major in order to achieve a climax in the piece that builds towards the end and then resolves in consonance. Beethoven, by contrast, in the first movement of Pathetique, starts off with a dissonant chord; he then uses dissonance and resolution throughout the composition while alternating between quiet and loud notes. Chopin, in Mazurka in F# uses dissonance to build tension throughout the piece, sometimes resolving it, sometimes not. This gives the piece complexity; Chopin suggests resolution but doesn't always deliver it, thereby taking advantage of his audience's expectations.

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