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Discovering music through listening
Discovering music through listening

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1.1 Consonant and dissonant harmonies

When two or more pitches are sounded together to form a chord, the choice of the pitches combined is important. Not all combinations of pitches sound pleasing and composers make use of this to create moments of tension in music. Moments of tension and resolution created by individual chords in a harmonic progression (a series of chords) are known as dissonance or discordant (tension) and consonance or concordant (resolution). Combining moments of tension and resolution within music helps to add interest and keep the listener engaged.

Consonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord which are agreeable or easy to listen to and make pleasing sounds. Dissonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord which are relatively harsh and grating. These are often difficult sounds to listen to, and so the ear will seek out the resolution in the chords that follow. What constitutes a consonant chord has changed over time.

Activity 1

Listen to the three audio extracts, and decide whether these can be categorised as dissonant (creating tension) or consonant (a feeling of ease or resolution). Note the track timings if you hear any prominent dissonances.

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Audio 14: Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, First Movement, 00:00–00:30
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Audio 24: Beethoven, Third Symphony, 12:38–13:08
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Audio 25: Eric Whitace, Lux Aurumque, 00:33–01:03
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Discussion

The most notable example of dissonance was in Audio 24 and could be heard at c.00:22. This was not a fleeting dissonance, but was repeated loudly a number of times by the orchestra, creating created a feeling of unresolved tension and unease in the music. Audio 14 was more straightforward, and included harmonies which created a pleasing sound. Any tension in the music was quickly resolved and acted to create interest rather than unease. Audio 25 contrasted with the first two in that there was a noticeable dissonance at c.00:13 that was held for several seconds, but was subsequently resolved in the chords which followed and therefore, like Audio 14, acted as a moment of interest in the music. The choral setting and the tempo of the music also helped to soften this dissonance.