The Beauty of Dissonance In Music


Mark Hanson, Fingerstyle Guitarist& Publisher, Accent on Music


I field a fair number of questions fromguitarists who use my guitar instruction books and videos. Thefollowing was an intriguing question about the use of dissonancein the music that we play and hear. It pertains to most guitarplayers.

Q: Sometimes as I learn a new piece of guitarmusic, there are notes played together that are very dissonant.It can discourage me from learning the piece. For instance, inone piece I'm singing an A note while the guitar plays the lowG on the bass string just below it. The guitar feels like it wantsto jump out the window! How do I deal with that?

A: First let me say that dissonance is anessential part of most music that we listen to, so don't be putoff by it. When you practice a new piece really slowly as youlearn it, you hear intervals (two notes) and chords (three ormore notes) out of context. This can emphasize the dissonancesbuilt into the piece, which can be a problem. It's easy to dwellon an individual chord when learning a piece, much moreso thanactually happens when the piece is played at performance speed.Once you realize that, it may make it easier to work through thedissonance at a slow speed. I call this the difference betweenlistening "vertically" and "horizontally."

If you look at a piece of music on a pieceof paper (or onscreen in this computerized age), intervals andchords are lined up vertically on the page. Melodies and othermoving lines are read horizontally as they move across the page.If you play one interval or chord out of the context of the piece,the dissonance within it may drive you crazy. But, if the composeror arranger did his/her job well, the dissonant interval or chordwill sound fine and correct in the context of the moving music.

Let me explain dissonance. Dissonance canbe described as notes whose frequencies are less than "harmonious"to our ears. For instance, playing notes that are one half-stepapart (open first-string E played with the fourth fret of thesecond string, a D#) is considered dissonant by most people. Playingnotes that are a major seventh interval apart, 11 frets, is alsoconsidered to be quite dissonant; for instance, play the opensecond string (B) together with the 6th fret of the first string(A#). However, dissonance is a requisite part of most music thatwe hear, providing it with "tension" that leads to "release."Without it, we end up with music that tends to command littleattention.

Many good examples of "vertical"dissonance can be found in three- and four-part vocal music: Soprano-Alto-Tenor-Basschoral music, for example. In this day and age of Crosby, Stillsand Nash-style parallel harmonies, there isn't as much dissonanceas can be found in some music of 500 years ago. In the choralmusic of that era, the melodic flow of each voice (the "horizontal")was actually considered to be more important than the chord (the"vertical") that the four notes made at any given time.This is the antithesis of the CSN approach, where the chord producedby the voices is of utmost importance.

In modern pop music of the CSN variety,the harmony voices largely are singing a line that is exactlyparallel to the melody. This leads to continuously harmoniouschords. In other writing, each voice has its own melodic shape,not necessarily parallel to any of the others. This can lead tosome "vertical" dissonance, chordal dissonance causedby the independent melodic flow of the voices. But if it is donecorrectly, this dissonance is wonderful--the exact right thingfor that moment in the music. If you are interested in hearingthis kind of writing, get a CD of Renaissance choral music. Onecomposer of that era who used dissonance liberally was Carlo Gesualdo.Look him up! Dissonance is all in the ear of the beholder, ofcourse. A half-step interval may be beautiful to one listener,and unbearable to another. Also, how a dissonant interval is perceivedcan be quite dependent on the other notes around the dissonance.But that is another article. Keep those ears open!

Mark Hanson

This article Copyright, ©, Mark Hanson,2000. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Fingerstyle guitarist Mark Hanson has authorednearly 30 books and videos on acoustic guitar, many publishedby his company Accent On Music. He regularly presents concertsand master classes, including the annual Accent On Music GuitarSeminar in Portland, Oregon. Mark has shared the stage with suchluminaries as John Renbourn, Laurence Juber, Alex de Grassi, PatKirtley, and the late Jerry Garcia. Mark's commercial recordingsinclude "Power of Two," an instrumental duet album releasedin 2001 with guitar master Doug Smith.

Mark's music is heard regularly on syndicatedradio and television programs such as "Martha Stewart Living"and National Public Radio's "Echoes." He regularly performson NPR,s "West Coast Live." In the late 80s, Mark wasan editor and columnist at Frets Magazine. Among others, his interviewsubjects included James Taylor, David Crosby, Larry Carlton, JormaKaukonen, Roger McGuinn, and Leo Kottke. -- Mark Hanson AccentOn Music http://www.accentonmusic.comTo subscribe to our free newsletters: Tips from Mark Hanson andAnnouncements from Accent On Music, visit: may be reached at Accent on Music, PMB 252 19363 WillametteDr. West Linn, OR 97068, or, e-mail him at