Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Taste and Dissonance

How to approach dissonance in music

In this video, Stephanie talks about dissonance in music and how we need to be trained to understand it...but at the end of the day, are you willing to put in the effort?

Released on July 3, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi there. I'm Stephanie with VSM, complete with a black eye that my daughter's loving embrace has accidentally inflicted upon me this week.

Today's video deals with dissonance, and particularly that of the Second Viennese School. You know, the composers, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern at the beginning of the 20th century, their aversion to anything vaguely resembling pretty tunes and music that many would arguably label horror film music. I don't want to talk history, no point, as you are all perfectly capable of Wikipedia-ing anything you want, but I do want to talk about perception and people's reaction to this music.

Dissonance is no big deal in music, it's always existed, but the sustained unresolved dissonance proposed at the beginning of the 20th century still leaves most of us squirming uncomfortably in our chairs, and yes, even those of us with a higher level of music education. There have been many studies undertaken to understand how humans perceive consonant, i.e. nice, and dissonance, less nice sound, but there are no fixed conclusions. Essentially, the role of perception and the formulation of aesthetic judgment remains unclear, and that comes from Frontiers in Psychology.

So what this means is no one really knows how perception contributes to whether we like something or not. I have my own theories for what they're worth, constructed around my own musical experiences and discussions with others, musicians and non. I feel that the key to liking something or not in music, largely comes down to musical experience. Experience by definition comes in the form of upbringing, education, context, and continuous ongoing musical opportunities. The more exposed you are to the various functions and context of music, whether this be music as accompaniment for film, theater, dance, or whatever, or music itself, taking center stage. Concerts or even personal music-making, the more global a vision you have. This exposure helps in dealing with music traditionally deemed as uncomfortable, as is the case with twelve-tone and other extremely dissonant music.

You also need curiosity. Having a vision, no matter what field you work in, depends on experimentation, seeking novelty, permanently trying out new stuff, and challenging your own beliefs, in this case, musical aesthetic. The last aspect is particularly hard as we tend to have quite a fixed mindset that immediately imposes barriers on our tastes.

Now as you'll see in the below link:

These barriers and the idea of taste are faced head-on. The video is essentially a spoof commercial which packages and sells the highly dissonant music of Arnie and his pals, referring to the musical style as being as beloved, catchy and romantic with tunes that you only this morning were whistling in the shower. Its incessantly sarcastic humor rests on the juxtaposition between adjectives, and the musical examples used.

Now as much as I like this spoof, clearly our musical mindsets are, if anything, even more reinforced with said sarcasm and therein lies the irony. You know, it's astonishing that in a hundred years of music history, little has changed to shift our tastes.

So what do you think? Am I right in that experience and cultivating curiosity plays a part in surmounting that instinctive aversion to atonalism and dissonance, or is it maybe the case that in keeping with this consumeristic world, our tastes, based on instant gratification, and therefore the opposite of long-term experience are inextricably bound with the catchy tonal tunes that are guaranteed to clinch a sale? There's no clear answer here, as psychology, sociology, and philosophy all have equal footing. So, to the experts out there, get writing and give us your own theories. Bye.
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