Consonance and Dissonance

Humans crave simplicity. We crave complexity too, but under very different circumstances. The beauty of simplicity is that it’s easy to understand, and understanding things easily is important to our survival. Simplicity is especially useful in language, because tight definitions allow us to convey information in fewer words. I once had a friend ask me what the “shape that was like a square but two sides were longer and the other two were shorter” was; he meant, of course, a rectangle. Reducing complex ideas to a single term helps us better understand each other; not all concepts can be so easily reduced, though.

Consonance and dissonance are not things that can be easily described with one definition; their meanings are relative to each other, and relative to culture, upbringing, sense of aesthetics and more. A discussion of consonance and dissonance must also be a discussion of complexity. Instead of offering you an easy answer for what they mean, we’re going to analyze them through a variety of different lenses, to see if we can create a deeper understanding of the terms.

The first lens we’ll employ is purely mathematical. Two notes might be said to be consonant if the ratio between them is simple; our desire for simplicity, back at it again. A perfect fifth is highly consonant; it has a ratio of 3:2, meaning that the upper note makes three vibrations in the same amount of time it takes for the lower note to make two. The major seventh, conversely, has a ratio of 15:8; quite an odd ratio, and quite dissonant to the ears. Without knowing these ratios, you could probably still tell which interval was consonant, and which was dissonant. Things get really strange with the perfect fourth, though. It has a ratio of 4:3, which is quite simple, and to listen to it without context, it sounds quite consonant. In practice, however, the perfect fourth is often considered dissonant. Why?

Put simply, it’s because more often than not, a perfect fourth feels like it needs resolution. It feels inchoate and unstable; we expect it to resolve to a more stable note. You can try this yourself; play an A, then a D, and you’ll almost certainly feel the desire to resolve the two to a third note, something like a C. This shows that simple mathematical ratios aren’t sufficient to explain consonance and dissonance; what else, then, explains it?

The answer to this isn’t simple, though we might very much like for it to be. We can look at cultural understanding to get some idea. When most of the music you’ve listened to for most of your life has treated certain intervals as “tension” and other intervals as “resolution”, you’re likely to interpret perfect fourths or other dissonant intervals as tense, even if you didn’t even understand the concept before reading this. Things that we might find “dissonant” can be seen as desirable in other cultures. For example, if you play two notes whose wavelengths are ever so slightly different, the ear can’t readily distinguish between the notes, but the respective waveforms will construct and destroy each other when overlapped, creating a “beating” or “tremolo” effect. Western musicians strive to eliminate beating, while in Indonesian gamelan music, the beat effect is sought for its added texture.

Here’s where things get really complex: what is music? When we make music, what are we trying to do? There’s no easy answer to this question, but what we are doing, in most cases, is trying to use sounds to invoke an emotional response. We can analyze consonance and dissonance from a variety of different angles, but in the end, it all comes down to how you feel. You can feel dissonance because you want resolution; you can feel consonance because it feels like home, like you’ve arrived. Without dissonance, the music might not be very good, because there’s no real journey to embark on; you never leave home. Without consonance, the music feels listless, unpredictable, not fully formed, because you have no sense of where you’re trying to get to. This means that consonance and dissonance will change constantly over time, as we gain new conceptions of what home is, and what the journey to home feels like. As you learn more about music, through piano lessons, music theory classes, even just listening to new songs, you’ll begin to appreciate how deep the concepts of consonance and dissonance truly are.

Hurdles for Children Learning Music

Parenting is one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can do. There’s a funny link between challenging and rewarding; the more difficult something is, the more fulfilled we’ll often feel when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; pleasure is derived from accomplishments because those accomplishments might help us or the next generation survive. This is part of the reason it’s so incredibly rewarding to make music; not only do you get the amazing feeling that comes with having created something unique, you remember all of the struggles, the ups and downs that brought you to where you are. This challenge-reward dynamic can be thrown into stark relief when, as a parent, you watch your child struggle with a problem. You want to help them without being overbearing; here are some things to pay attention to when they’re struggling with music.

One of the major hurdles that come with learning music is learning to practice. Many children are attracted to the raw creativity of music; that’s one of the reasons so many 2-year-olds love to drum on pots and pans. The rigid, structured elements can be more difficult for a child to learn to love. When your child is complaining about having to practice, try giving them a sense of control. Ask them when they’d like to practice; before or after supper? Talk to them about their favorite music to play, and see if they want to incorporate it in their practice. Speak with their music teacher about their difficulty practising, and see if you can all work together to find a practice schedule that works for your child; feeling in control can do wonders for practice regimens.

Learning to read music can be another source of frustration. Reading music is like learning a language very fluently. You not only have to learn to read and speak the language, but you need to learn all of the intonations, the fluidity, the poetry of it all. A child who expects to learn all of this right away will be disappointed; they need to temper their expectations. Let them know that no one expects them to be able to read and play everything perfectly immediately; music is a gradual, slow and wonderful learning process. Some students might also have a hard time reading the notes because they’re experiencing problems with their vision; you can find an optometrist in Winnipeg to help with the problem. Your child struggling to read music might be your first sign that they are having problems seeing.

A lot of new students might have a problem that’s not visible on the surface; anxiety. When students have to go to a new location filled with strangers every week to learn music, they can find it incredibly challenging if they are introverted or anxious, and this can lead to negative associations with practice. Fortunately, there are in-home music lessons offered in Winnipeg that can help alleviate this anxiety; practice in the comfort of your home can make learning music a much more gratifying process.

Algorithmic Blues

Music algorithms are a funny thing. Ostensibly, they exist to help us discover new music that’s suited to our tastes. The problem with the idea is that the algorithms curate based on tastes that you already have, using songs that already exist within defined parameters as a starting point to steer you towards other music that fits the mould of those parameters. The problem with this is clear: while you can discover a lot of new music in this way, it will probably exist inside your comfort zone. In light of this, a lot of people are looking for anti-algorithmic ways of finding new music.

I read a great article by Pitchfork about one of the ways you can break out of the algorithm trap: listen to online radio. Online radio is usually run by passionate musicians and music fans who plumb the depths of the record store to find rare, almost unheard of gems to play for you. They are often volunteers, so there’s no financial incentive for them to play a particular piece; online radio is a work of love, and it shows. I’ve discovered so much music from online radio, and sometimes, I’ll hear a piece that I recognize from a song that samples it. One of the most exciting elements of music is the recontextualization of old sounds, unravelling the mythos of the tracks you listen to. Hearing a melody that calls back to an old song I know, or a lyric that references another track; it appeals to the collector in me, and your collection can’t be complete if you don’t do a little digging.

This anti-algorithm, always-be-curious attitude will help you play better, too. One of the biggest mistakes new musicians make is trying to make their piece sound exactly like another player; it’s good to remember that everything you play is an interpretation, and it’s the variation between your style and another musician’s that will make your interpretation special, unique. You want to play the “right” notes, of course, at the right time, but the feel of it can be different. You might be using a piano that’s totally different from the piano a piece was recorded with. The weight of your keys, the acoustics of your room, your own personal style; all of these will affect the piece.

Getting out of boxed-in modes of thinking is something we must aspire to as musicians. Not just as musicians, either; as human beings, it is our duty to get out of our comfort zone to try and establish new ways of understanding things – and each other. By listening to new music, exposing yourself to new ideas, and coming up with fresh ways of interpreting a piece, you’re a part of a longstanding tradition of breaking the mould through art. You are the anti-algorithm. Algorithms are computerized, digital, cold; you are flesh and blood, human, and the works you make can be made by no one else. When you want to freshen up on the technical elements of your playing, Winnipeg piano lessons are available; we’ll help you discover what you can bring to the world.

A Brief History of the Piano

There’s a lot that goes into understanding a piece of music. First, you listen to it; you let the melody take you away, you move your feet to the beat. Deeper yet, your second and third listens; you begin to notice subtle nuances, flourishes that had passed you by on the first listen. This continues each listen; some pieces you can listen to hundreds of times and continue to unlock secrets, it’s meaning changing as you age. You can learn even more about a piece by learning the instruments that make the music; you can then appreciate how much effort and practice went into perfecting the technique the musician has used. Another layer of depth is found when you learn about the history of music; where the piece finds itself in the Grand Canon of Music, and the story behind the instruments that made it. So it is with the piano.

Now ubiquitous, the piano was revolutionary even when it was made. There was a problem with other stringed instruments that could be hammered; it was difficult to create a system where the hammer would pull off of the strings, and when it remained on the strings, they were muted. Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano, solved this problem. The instrument he created was originally called the pianoforte, because it could play soft (piano) and loud (forte). The dynamic sonics such an instrument allows are what keep it in use today; musical pieces that could never have been composed otherwise can be played on the piano, with its incredible range of notes and volumes.

What makes a piano a piano isn’t exactly clear, as the instrument itself has changed several times over the years. At one time, the pedals were at knee height, instead of being manipulated by the player’s feet; why they thought this was a good idea may be lost to time. The way pianos are built has changed as well; different materials for the body and keys, different string thicknesses and more have been adapted. At one time, pianos were incredibly breakable, and a player playing forcefully would destroy their instrument; they have seen begun to be reinforced.

Now, there are a plethora of different instruments that might be called a piano. Take a keyboard, for example; you can have one with weighted keys and pedals that feels almost exactly like a piano, except the instrument is electronic; no strings and hammers. Is that a piano? Look at a device like the Seaboard, a “piano” sensitive to all kinds of different touches; is that a piano? It’s somewhat difficult to say, because instruments evolve over time; the piano today looks quite different than the one from the early 1700s.

While instruments may evolve, the benefits of learning one for students young and old have remained. Playing music is good for your body and mind. Winnipeg piano lessons are available, and what’s better, you can have them in the comfort of your own home; that’s a benefit that will stand the test of time.