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Tonality and Dissonance

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Title : Tonality and Dissonance
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Tonality and Dissonance

These two concepts are often confused, I suspect. We learn about tonality and dissonance in theory class, but we don't think much about how they are related or if they are related. Dissonance is a fairly easy concept, but one that is historically inflected. What is considered to be dissonant varies over time. A long time ago, thirds were considered too dissonant to use in a final cadence. In common practice harmony, almost any interval can be used, as long as it is resolved correctly. In a V7 - I cadence, the dominant chord contains the very dissonant tritone, but with the leading tone resolving up and the seventh resolving down, all is well.

In 20th century music a lot of dissonances were explored including clusters of semitones and even microtones.

Tonality is harder to define, but it usually involves the concept of "functionality." I gave the example of a V7 - I cadence. This is an example of functionality. A cadence really defines tonality. The function of a cadence is to define the key, the tonal center. The function of a leading tone is to lead to the tonic. The function of a seventh is to create a dissonance that is resolved into the tonic chord. Every note and every harmony has a role and function in common practice harmony. Schoenberg even thought about his twelve-tone system as being a huge extension of tonality.

Dissonance has a function within tonality, in fact, tonality depends on the use of dissonance.

But here is the thing, we sometimes think that what led to the obsolescence of tonal music was the over-use of dissonance, but you can have music that is not functionally tonal that also does not use a lot of dissonance. So-called "modal" music is an example. Modes, typically lacking leading tones, have a lower level of dissonance than tonal music. You could have musical structures that simply avoid both tonality and dissonance. For example:

Click to enlarge
That is the opening of Petroushka by Stravinsky and while what is going on there is not nearly as simple as it looks, one thing for sure, it is neither dissonant nor tonal. What we have is an oscillation between two harmonies with a melody above that that suggests a different harmony. One of the things that weakens the notion of a tonal center is the rhythmic structure. Fundamentally, in order to define a key in common practice tonality, you have to have some kind of dominant resolving to some kind of tonic and it needs to go from an upbeat to a downbeat. Pieter van den Toorn describes what is going on here as "oscillating simultaneities." The fact that they are a whole-tone apart means we don't really hear either as a "tonic" and that is despite the leap of a fourth from A to D that would often signal a dominant-tonic relationship. Look at that cello melody: we do get a C# but it is not heard as a leading tone because it is in a metrically weak position and because it leads away, not towards the D. Everything is "up in the air" which what makes this opening so exciting.

Let's have a listen:




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