Uneasy listening
December 13, 2011 2:34 AM   Subscribe

Why do we sometimes enjoy dissonance in music?

Firstly - I know almost nothing of music theory, so apologies if I'm using the wrong terms or making incorrect assumptions.

I was listening to I'll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry by Trips & Falls (Spotify link) and it struck me that, while I was very much enjoying it, parts of the song sound 'a bit off' and not quite in tune.

This isn't uncommon - similar examples are littered across modern music of noise and dissonance and music that sounds a little 'off-kilter'. Bob Dylan, for instance, is incredibly influential and popular despite having a voice that isn't terribly tuneful. Nirvana's music was often abrasive yet attained mass popularity.

Here comes the possibly incorrect assumptions part - if there's a neurological or mathematical basis for what we find harmonious and pleasant, why do we also find dissonance (if that's the right word) enjoyable? And is it a modern phenomenon?
posted by liquidindian to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes the "offness" is just an intentional part of the humor or flavor, which makes Dylan's singing very love–it–or–hate–it. However, turning to "difficult" music—that which may not be clearly tuneful or immediately enjoyable—it can be a class marker showing those who have the time and ability to properly "appreciate" music. I recall there was an explanation of this regarding classic music, how the most popular pieces among the lower social groups were also considered the most tuneful, such as the Blue Danube. Those pieces most often listened to by the middle and upper social groups were less obviously so.

Thus a group like Nirvana may be deliberately difficult in order to distinguish between in– and out–groups of those who like their music. Some of their fans may have arose following a trend in popularity, yet others like the music for more considered reasons. It's no surprise that their most difficult album In Utero followed their most popular Nevermind, for which they picked up a huge number of fans.
posted by Jehan at 3:04 AM on December 13, 2011

Dissonance is the sound of real life. Music is basically the opposite of that. I think in a lot of ways, dissonance is the mole on Monroe's face or the fly in the painting of the bowl of fruit; it reminds you that perfectly pretty things are illusory.
posted by Gilbert at 3:09 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know of any official or academic theory on why someone might enjoy dissonance in music.

Of course, most people *don't* like dissonance in music, but most music is based on contrast. Contrasts between major and minor chords, contrasts between loud and soft, hi pitch and low pitch etc. So adding some dissonance is another way to contrast two parts of a song.

In one of my bands we once made a list of contrasts that included the dissonant/harmonious pair. But anyway, that's why I think you might enjoy some dissonance in a song.
posted by j03 at 3:17 AM on December 13, 2011

Well, from what I remember of music theory, the presence of dissonance is necessary for a feeling of resolution when returning to the consonant harmony.

Then, if you compare music to visual art, there's also a move away from classical composition, and representation of form. Or if you compare classical ballet to modern dance. It seems that modern sensibilities enjoy the move away from classical forms in all the arts.

If you think about it, this makes some sense, for two reasons:
1: Art often develops in directions that shock. It's one of the real driving forces in artistic development.
2. The rejection of previous rules, explicitly, is another driving force in the development of artistic movements.

People like change.
posted by bardophile at 3:21 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

That's a pretty complicated question and I am looking forward to hearing people's answers. I am an amateur and expect a pro can answer this better, but here's my take.

One of the nice things about dissonance is that it adds tension to a song. I can totally hear it going on in this song in the bridges - the chords get all weird in the choruses. The tension from dissonance is related to notes and the way they 'crunch', which has something to do with beat frequencies and resonance in the human ear and all kinds of weird physics, which as I understand mean that you have to work harder to listen to and make sense of the music. Once it switches back to consonance, this weight is lifted and you relax, and maybe even exhale, and you feel resolution.

The push and pull of tension and resolution is what gives music structure. A song that was all tension would be just noise, but one that had no tension might be boring. It's the reason there are verses and choruses and bridges -- a bridge is new and uncharted territory, but the last chorus is home, because you've heard it several times already. Same for intensity and volume and timbre and so on; basically every dimension of the sound can be tweaked to add shaping.

I think, but now I am getting out of my depth, that the deliberate use of dissonanace is indeed a relatively modern phenomenon -- search for the tritone or devil's interval, the diminished fifth 'crunch chord', once thought to be unholy or so I was taught, but eventually a key part of the sound of blues and jazz, and of course contemporary classical composers blew away all these conventions ages ago.

Psychoacoustics and Music Psychology, for more reading. There is definitely a large amount of theory and research out there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:23 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Dissonance is tension. Music without tension is music without emotional contrast.
posted by plinth at 3:26 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I agree with Gilbert's comment too.. imperfection is human... I hate when songs are auto-tuned to death.. I think it sounds horrible and mechanical.

I strongly disagree with Jehan calling it a "class marker" ... as though musicians are purposely trying to make music unlistenable and somehow people listen to it to show their class? That is just absurd to me.
posted by j03 at 3:31 AM on December 13, 2011

We like it when it's well done because we like clever new (or at any rate deviant) stuff. Also if you can use dissonance you get scope for a wider range of different effects and affect.
posted by Segundus at 4:01 AM on December 13, 2011

I think, but now I am getting out of my depth, that the deliberate use of dissonanace is indeed a relatively modern phenomenon

Depends what you mean by relatively modern, because I think of Bach as a good example of judicious use of dissonance. Many of his fugues leave you hanging on tensely until the final chord.
posted by knave at 4:30 AM on December 13, 2011

actually i strongly agree with gilbert's comment, though i think it often goes beyond a simple matter of class (and especially lower vs middle and upper class) and think liking overtly dissonant music can be a way of asserting your social class, ethnic background, even to a micro-level - think of what social sets you tend to notice being really into heavy metal, vs who might be into punk, vs. who might be into overtly cheesy mexican pop, vs who might be into gangsta rap (which could really be any number of groups, including but not limited to the middle class suburban white kids, inner city black kids, or 30-something children of academics) all of these groups are, i feel, in some way asserting their tribal boundaries - their friends listen to this stuff, they grow to appreciate the finer points of their dissonant music-of-choice, and come to like, no LOVE it, while those of different groups think "jeeze how can anybody stand that stuff?" and bugger off to a different bar/nightclub/parking lot/area of campus.

i also think there's a bit of underlying psychological, ear/brain instinctual reactions that play into this phenomenon. in the wild, we, like many animals, take our cues for our ongoing safety by continued background droning - the crickets are chirrping, the birds are singing in the background, everything's cool. then, something changes - the crickets shut up, the birds make their intruder-alert call, our ears perk up and we pay closer attention to our surroundings. dissonance and other unexpected changes of many sorts play on this, as a way to get our attention. if it's *too* smooth, we just drift off and stop really listening. a quick, off kilter chord change, drum fill, "off" note etc grabs the attention, perhaps to draw attention to a lyric or solo, or just to keep us overall engaged in the music. on the other end of the spectrum, this is why muzak leads to a happier, calmer office - everyone is psychologically soothed just by the ongoing, no-surprises background noise.
posted by messiahwannabe at 5:41 AM on December 13, 2011

There are good reasons why dissonance has a place in music, but I'm not the theorist to explain them.

Bob Dylan, for instance, is incredibly influential and popular despite having a voice that isn't terribly tuneful.

the interesting thing about Dylan is that he can sing prettily just fine (well, he could at one point). Some of his early and less strident recordings are very mellifluous. I have read that he does the goat-bleating thing because he wanted to sound, in his words "like a prophet" - to sing in a way that cut through expectations of beauty and grabbed your attention, to make you say "something is off here and this guy really wants me to know it and feel it." Since I understood that approach his vocal style has made a lot more sense to me. He also has a trick of going intentionally flat or sharp that also works, by not allowing you to turn off your attention and zone out on the music unfolding to harmonious expectation.
posted by Miko at 5:55 AM on December 13, 2011

I had a harmony prof who would play a simple scale up to the next-to-last-note, then linger, just for the fun of watching the entire class strain for the last note.

Dissonance is conflict. It stimulates. It grabs your attention. In music as in so many other things in life, you long for resolution but once you have it your interest is lost.

Why do our stories (novels, movies, etc) revolve around crisis? A novel about a perfectly nice person with a perfectly nice life who gets along perfectly well with everyone and has no worries or conflicts is as boring as hell. A movie about a douche with a heart of gold who has enemies and a mortgage payment he can't make and things he wants desperately and can't quite have .... that's something you might keep watching. We crave resolution but we also crave the train wreck - as long as it has the resolution at the end.

You're talking about dissonance in the sense of *accidental* disharmony, but I think the same principles apply. That's the beauty of choral music. Except for maybe the Robert Shaw Chorale, a few people are just a little sharp or a little flat and that makes my skin tingle.
posted by bunderful at 6:42 AM on December 13, 2011

Dissonance isn't a modern thing - as long as there's been harmony, there's been dissonance; for example in the false relations of Renaissance music, the suspensions and ornamentation of the Baroque, Mozart's favoured trick of accenting the dissonant 'passing' notes in a downward scalic phrase. In classical harmony is reaches a peak in Wagner's 'Tristan chord'. There's also nothing inherently abrasive or untuneful about dissonance.

If you strip any piece of music of dissonance, you end up with something that is, at best, a nursery rhyme. Blunderful's story analogy is the same one I use with my pupils (and, as an extension, several of my two-year-old daughter's books lack a little in the way of tension...). You can't have resolution without a build up of tension. You can also use it to misdirect - resolving the tension in an unexpected way, or even building straight into another.
posted by monkey closet at 7:22 AM on December 13, 2011

Because after a bit it goes away.
posted by Aquaman at 7:35 AM on December 13, 2011

Oh, and mathematical basis:

The most consonant interval is an octave - which has a 2:1 frequency ratio
After that, it's a perfect fifth - 3:2

The simpler the ratio, the more consonant the interval. Look up the harmonic series - the earlier a note appears, the more consonant it'll sound.

Simple triads (3-note chords) contain only consonant intervals. So a G major chord (GBD) has no dissonance, and doesn't feel like it needs to resolve anywhere.

Add an F at the top and you've got a minor seventh - (7:4; dissonant) - between the root (G) and the F, and a tritone (7:5; also dissonant) between the third (B) and F. To the brain, that seventh wants to pull down to a consonant interval, and the third is sort of pulling up (a tritone is actually really ambiguous, and can pull either way, but once you've got a G major harmonic context, the brain tends to sort out C as much more likely than A#...). B and F want to resolve to C and E - a consonant major third. This gives the chord progression G7 - C; a 'perfect cadence' (V - I) and the cornerstone of classical harmony.
posted by monkey closet at 7:38 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Warning: I'm approaching this from a Western Art Music perspective, I have no idea about the philosophical underpinnings of other traditions.I'd never represent this as "this is why humans like dissonance," instead this is "why people raised in the Western Musical tradition like dissonance."

I think there's a couple of distinct ideas of what dissonance means at play here, which are commonly conflated, but I like to keep separate. When we're common practice period music theory (What Bach wrote) geeking out, the answer is some variation of everyone aboves' answers. I personally like the idea that dissonance exists only as contrast to resonance. That is, someone who's never heard western music before has no way of knowing that a minor second is dissonant until they can compare it to a perfect 5th. Once we've heard those resonant intervals, we hear the other intervals as wanting to become those. That's what I like to think of as theoretical dissonance: the class of intervals that pulls rather than resounds. We like it because it adds variety and motion.

When talking about the trend towards theoretical dissonance, it's worth noting that our tritone and Bach's tritone are two different things acoustically, though not theoretically. The temperament or tuning that a piece of music is performed in makes a huge difference as to how dissonant things sound. Here's a (youtube) lecture with examples on that subject.

For that matter, what octave the notes are in, what instrument the notes are played on, how they're phrased, the context of the surrounding piece, the facial expression of the performer, if they're played at the same time, in or out of time, etc. all make a difference with how dissonant we perceive something to be. To a large extent perceived dissonance (which can include theoretical dissonances, but isn't limited to them). is just a sound that we're not used to hearing. THAT kind of dissonance (which is really what I think you're talking about when you mention Dylan's singing or Nirvana) is really just like liking bitter food. We're told that X is harsh, off-kilter, or some other word with negative connotations, therefore is ugly, but if beauty is in the ear of the beholder, so's ugly. As has been noted by others, this is the sort of thing we adjust to. There's probably a pretty wide variety of reasons humans like these, depending on what it is that's perceived to be dissonant about them. Personally I like that Dylan's singing style seems to emphasize him as a narrator versus as a musician, which just seems right for his aesthetic.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:11 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Simple. It's boredom.

Survey the history of western music; it's a more or less direct route of ever-increasing dissonance (with exceptions, e.g. some pretonal music sounds incredibly dissonant to our ears).

For example, Mozart's more radical harmonies, which sounded downright revolutionary at the time, seem downright tame now, because we have integrated them into our common aesthetic.

Composers, being creative, and thus always looking to break with tradition and take things a step beyond (and to challenge audiences), naturally keep ramping up the dissonance. For the past half century, one frontier has been microtonality.

The previous generation's music always seems sappy and boring to the young. Young composers want to push the envelope. Bored with the old, they yearn to challenge that established order, and to extend their palettes. Hence: gradually increasing dissonance. It's really no more complicated than that.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:19 AM on December 13, 2011

Dissonance is tension. Music without tension is music without emotional contrast.
Dissonance is the sound of real life.
Dissonance is human.

This and:

Dissonance in in the ear of the behearer. Practically everything in Indian Classical or Balinese Gamelan music is dissonant in the sense of western music theory of harmony built up on triads.


"I've always been in favor of dissonance. I like food with a lot of cayenne pepper on it, and I like music with a lot of dissonance in it." -- Frank Zappa
posted by Herodios at 8:52 AM on December 13, 2011

There's a saying that "the browns make the painting." It means that you need dull colors in order for the saturated, "beautiful" colors to stand out. This effect is most obvious in the checker shadow illusion. I can't find the musical equivalent, but it probably exists!
posted by yaymukund at 10:33 AM on December 13, 2011

This episode of Radiolab has a story about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which you might find interesting.
posted by Chenko at 11:22 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Dissonance is tension. Music without tension is music without emotional contrast"

But it's all relative. As I wrote, above, Mozart's music, which sounds extremely consonant to our ears, was highly dissonant and fraught with tension and contrast to ears of the time. As with chili pepper and smack, we build up tolerance and require more over time. We grow bored with the same old dissonance; it loses its ability to create tension. And composers, being creative people, grow bored, as well. Therefore dissonance, like entropy, is always increasing.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:25 AM on December 14, 2011

"Dissonance" is a very misleading word. It has two different meanings, and I don't see any of the comments here being clear about the distinction. It seems that the OP is using "dissonance" to mean any sound that isn't conventionally pleasant, like off-key singing or guitars with a dirty tone. Most of the answers are using "dissonance" in the formal sense: any notes or chords that created tension, i.e. a feeling that there needs to be a resolution. For instance, the second-to-last chord of a song is usually dissonant, and it usually resolves to the last chord of a song; this is called a cadence. That kind of "dissonance" is at least as important in Bach and Mozart as it is in Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix.

So I recommend avoiding the word "dissonance" and reframing your question more precisely. If you're talking about a distorted tone (e.g. the tone of Kurt Cobain's guitar in the loud parts of a Nirvana song), just say that. If you mean an unconventional combination of notes, "discordance" or even "ugliness" would be a clearer description than "dissonance." If you mean out-of-key notes, just say that. If you mean tension/resolution, say that. The question of why tension is a fundamental element in almost all music (yes, even minimalism and Eastern music) is very different from why people like listening to Bob Dylan and Nina Simone even though they don't have conventionally beautiful voices.
posted by John Cohen at 10:22 AM on December 14, 2011

« Older Post your favorite year-end best-of list...   |   Who is / was "D. Goldschmidt"? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.