Introducing Dissonance

Our modern ears have become so accustomed to advanced tonal languages that dissonance has become a relative concept. Just a few short centuries ago, composers would not include a third in the final chord of a piece because it was considered dissonant. In the 20th-century, Olivier Messiaen crafted pieces that end peacefully on a dominant seventh chord (as in Le banquet celeste). Context allows us to walk away from this final chord without demanding a traditional harmonic resolution.

Wrong notes

I don’t necessarily remember where I got the idea, but one of the foundational ideas of the instruction I received in improvisation was that there are no wrong notes when improvising. Why then do some notes sound wrong? Why do the pieces I end on a dominant seventh chord usually sound unfinished (unlike Messiaen)?

I believe the simple answer is that these wrong notes make a change in the level of dissonance.

This works both ways. If you are playing in an early tonal language and your melody lands on the minor third while the accompaniment has a major third (F natural above a D-major triad for example), it will certainly sound like a wrong note and a mistake. Likewise, if you are playing in an advanced language with lots of seconds, sevenths and clusters, the appearance of a major triad can sound quite jarring. The sounds are perfectly acceptable by themselves. It is the context that makes them seem wrong.

New Rules

The study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a very systematic and controlled way. First species allows no dissonance. In the language of Palestrina, this limits us to thirds, fifths and sixths using notes within the mode. If we wish to develop a more modern sound, what if we did first species using only seconds, fourths, and sevenths? For example:

Another alternative might be to keep the intervals restricted to thirds and sixths, but move one hand into another key:

Second species counterpoint where there are two notes against each note of the cantus firmus allows more options for introducing dissonance. Like first species, it can be done without any dissonance (only seconds, fourths and sevenths here):

Or passing and neighbor notes can be included:

With its carefully graded level of difficulty, the traditional path to the study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a careful and controlled manner. Even if we wish to use a more modern language, we can still apply those same concepts for the introduction of dissonance. Choose which intervals will be consonant for your exercise. As you move into the second and third species, introduce categories of dissonant notes one by one: passing tones, neighbor notes, chromatic passing and neighbor notes, appoggiaturas, and accented passing tones. How do these categories change or alter your dissonance level?

In my first days as a student, I spent an entire year (or two) on two voice counterpoint working slowly through the levels of dissonance and species. Mastery of counterpoint takes time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and boring. Change the rules and keep exploring!

Happy counterpointing!

Newsletter Issue 57 – 2016 04 11

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