Take the 2-minute tour ×
Musical Practice & Performance Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So, I'm not a scholar of music history, but I have a basic timeline. The evolution of Western music theory had several times in which certain chords and intervals were considered too "jarring" or "dissonant", but eventually became acceptable as composers found ways to make it work. Obviously, music evolves.

My question is, was there a specific impetus that pushed the role of dissonance out of the jarring mechanism it's normally used as, to simply adding complexity and an "unfinished" quality to chords and phrases? In short, what propelled music from this:

Sergey Rachmaninoff - Bogoroditse Djevo (1915)

... where the chord structure, though complex, stays pretty consonant, to this...

Samuel Barber - Agnus Dei (Adagio for Strings) (1938)

... where the chord progressions introduce and then resolve quite a bit of dissonance through the phrases, to this:

John Tavener - The Lamb (1982)

... where the majority of the piece is atonal, and intervals we don't normally hear figure prominently, to this...

Eric Whitacre - Water Night (1994)

... where at one point the choir builds to a 19-note "cluster chord", containing every pitch in the key through two and a half octaves (and that's not the most "dissonant" part of the piece by far).

There seems to have been a BIG change in the way we think about dissonance between WWII and the roughly present-day. Even in mosuc with an established key and using pretty standard progressions, the movement of voices to create major and minor second dissonances is now often relished instead of glossed over. Example: "Lully, Lulla, Lullay"; It's very tonally-centered, firmly in the minor key, but has dissonant movement all through it. It would be stereotypical to say that the impetus was the change in all kinds of thinking during the 60's, but that may well be the case; the influence of other genres and of environmentalist thought were certainly present in classical music during that time, as evidenced by the mere existence of a classical piece titled "The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer". I don't have too many notable examples of classical music from that era, certainly not a capella choral to fit the rest of the selections. Does anyone have more information than I to back up this hypothesis?

share|improve this question
the whole history of music theory is just like: "oh, you should JUST do this and that!" and then some genius arrives and says "but what if I try this? I know it sounds awful to your ears... Here, let me write it in a way that sounds more logical to you". And, hence, something which first was unacceptable becomes the rule. From Palestrina, to Bach, to Debussy, to Charlie Parker, this is pretty much the history of all music. No, there's no "point" in which something becomes acceptable as there's no such thing as a "dissonance". Can you define what's ugliness or beauty? –  Saturnix Jan 27 at 3:17
add comment

6 Answers

I find the Tavener and Whitacre to be very consonant-sounding and beautiful. On the other hand, the parallel fifths and fourths of Medieval organum sound unpleasant and jarring to me, although they probably sounded melodious and sweet to the original performers.

I see two ways of interpreting your question.

  1. When did the use of dissonance change from shocking and jarring to peaceful and resolved?

This has never happened, in that whatever is shocking and jarring to a particular person's ears is "dissonant", and whatever is peaceful and resolved is "consonant".

  1. When did such-and-such a dissonance become a consonance?

It happens all the time. Between the Medieval and Baroque eras, parallel fifths changed from consonance to dissonance -- a single open fifth is not dissonant, but a series of them sounds weird and wrong. At the same time, the major third became a consonance.

I think maybe the specific answer to your question "when did early 20th-century dissonances become consonances" is "when whichever piece of classical music first used an added-sixth chord as an ending." For instance, C-E-G-A-C in C major. This turned up in jazz and classical music, in Ravel and Bix Beiderbecke for instance. I don't know which of the two was first; Ravel was a jazz fan and Bix was a Ravel fan. It appears in Debussy's "Gollywog's Cakewalk" although not in the real cakewalks that influenced Debussy. Maybe it appears in Faure or Wagner; I don't know, I'll have to listen carefully for it. You certainly hear it all the time in jazz from the 1920's on. (We don't know much about the chords used in jazz in its first two decades, from the 1890's until it was first recorded around 1917.) Messiaen makes very frequent use of this chord. Maybe that's what made Pierre Boulez think Messiaen's music is "brothel music".

Milhaud's "Creation du Monde" was influenced by jazz, and the very last chord adds the leading tone (i.e. B in a C major chord). It's just amazingly beautiful, and if the melody line went G-A-B-C instead of G-A-Bflat-B it would be pleasant but uninteresting.

(Edit: I suddenly realized that the ending of "Creation du Monde" comes almost directly from the cliched barber-shop "Good Evening Friends" ending! (Added-6th: C-E-G-A. Good Evening Friends: C-E-G-Bflat. Milhaud: C-E-G-B.) So if you can find the first use of "Good Evening Friends", you've got an answer.)

share|improve this answer
add comment

I'm also not a scholar on music history, but I think dissonance started to be taken into account with the continuous modulation Wagner used in his compositions. He is often seen as the father of chromaticism.

After Wagner, we have Debussy. He created a brand new scale, the hexatonic scale (C D E F# G# A#) where the fundamental C chord (C E G) became a "strange" C chord, C E G#. Thus, continuing the destruction of the tonal system, started by Wagner.

We can go on and on, one of my favourites is Béla Bartók, his works are completely out of the tonal system. He studied ancient folk songs, which were composed with no knowledge on music theory and where dissonance was peacefully present.

In "Water Night", from Whitacre, there is no key, thus making it perfectly understandable he keeps building from the fifth chord, goes to a seventh, a ninth, and so on.

Long story short: Wagner started to make dissonance acceptable.

EDIT: When I say "dissonance started to be taken into account" I mean when dissonance started to be studied, not only used to create simple tensions and simple modulations. A whole new music school derived from that study.

share|improve this answer
Nitpick: "Water Night" does have a key - it's in 6 flats (G♭ or E♭m) according to my copy of the sheet music =) –  jadarnel27 Nov 8 '11 at 16:33
@jadarnel27 Having a Key signature does not mean it actually have a key. The key signature can be used to simplify the writing. –  Victor Nov 8 '11 at 20:41
I completely agree on that point. I don't actually feel that it applies to "Water Night" - but I will quit nit-picking now! Interesting perspective on this question regardless. –  jadarnel27 Nov 9 '11 at 2:47
@jadarnel27 To be honest here, I never seen the sheet for "Water Night", I had just listened to it. I'll take a close look at the score later and reply again. If it actually have a key, than it's very interesting example! Thanks for pointing out. –  Victor Nov 9 '11 at 11:05
add comment

Beethoven, throughout his lifetime, created music that pushed the limits of tonality. In the classical period there were "rules" for how far you could push these limits, governed by contrapuntal techniques that evolved from the 16th century.

In Beethoven's later works you begin to hear more and more dissonance. Musically speaking, it is agreed by most music history scholars that Beethoven ushered in the Romantic period. As music progressed, different composers pushed the bounds of consonance vs dissonance with modulations, alternative scales, and even atonality; as well as questioning and expanding everything about music (instrumentation, rhythmic complexity, notation, etc.)

As Beethoven paved the way for Romantic period composers to become more independent of the "rules" of the past, so Wagner did for 20th century composers. This is not to say that Wagner is the only composer that affected the change, but he had one of the most far reaching impacts on future composers.

The concept of sustained dissonance was brought to its peak by Arnold Schoenberg and his concept of atonal, or pantonal, composition. However, all musical evolution is just that: evolution. The process of musical change is not usually sudden.

Is there a point in history where dissonance became acceptable? There is not really a specific date. Schoenberg didn't even start out writing atonal music; his early style is very romantic sounding. He was a revolutionary and he did greatly affect the musical culture around him in the early 1900's. It took people time, however, to accept his theories. This could explain why you hear a change in the mid-1900's.

I hope all this info helps.

Edit: As far as the specific pieces you pointed out, here are some comments about the progression of the musical styles they represent:

  • Rachmaninoff represents a lush romantic sound
  • Samuel Barber moves further into a 20th century style, with a great deal of sustained, but at some point resolved, dissonances
  • The Lamb is not atonal, but does sound tonally ambiguous because of its use of accidentals;
  • Then to Water Night, where Whitacre uses a technique call pandiatonicism (using all of the notes in the scale in clusters) but staying in the key or in related keys. His concept of sustained dissonance without resolution gives a very powerful innovative sound.
share|improve this answer
You know the famous joke about the tonal experiments and the deafness of Beethoven, right? :P –  percusse Nov 15 '11 at 15:03
add comment

There are degrees of dissonance, and over the course of music history, musical compositions became more tolerant of increasing degrees of dissonance and using more acute dissonance more often. It is a continuum. There was not an identifiable point at which any of this changed.

share|improve this answer
I agree and I think this reached it's peak somewhere between 1910-1970. Since then "classical" composers, on average, have backed off the dissonance a bit. –  Matthew Briggs Jan 25 at 18:27
add comment

Quite honestly, dissonance has been acceptable for as long as there have been non-octave harmonies. This may seem silly, but let's first define dissonance- any 2 or more notes whose overtones (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonic_series_(music)) do not match up. This means any pair of non-octave, non-unison notes (non-octave and a fifth, non-2-octaves and a third, etc) could be considered dissonant. This is partially why the earliest plainchant (also known as Gregorian Chant) is mainly all sung in unison. The matching of the overtones creates a strong, resonant sound. When overtones do not match (like in the case of a major third), the resonance is somewhat diminished, but they create a pleasing (or crunching, in the case of the minor second) sound as the notes and their overtones vibrate at different rates. Having the extra overtones creates a fullness of sound, which is why chords are so supportive.

But I Digress.

In terms of specific intervals, the definition of dissonance has changed greatly throughout the history of music. For now, I can only speak of Western music since the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, perfect fourths were considered incredibly dissonant and were not used in much of the music written during that era. Now, a perfect fourth is thought of as one of the most stable consonants. The preferred intervals of harmony are determined by what you are used to. An excellent example of this is Charles Ives (I can't post more than 2 links, so put this on the end of the wikipedia url: wiki/Charles_Ives), whose father made him sing songs in one key while playing the accompaniment in a completely different key. As a result, Charles Ives wrote what we would call extremely dissonant music (



Here's what happens:

A generation (G1) has a type of harmony they like and are used to. Their children (G2) grow up hearing this, and it is the foundation of 'what music is' to them. They grow up, and a few members test and strain the boundaries of what could be considered 'new' and still 'musical.' There is push back from G1. G2 enjoys the music, and their children, G3, grow up with that as the foundation of 'what music is.' This is how Perfect Fourths went from a dissonance in the Renaissance to a consonance in the Baroque.

You, however, are probably wondering why dissonance is so widely used as a compositional tool for today's modern compositions. Well, we can blame that on the 2nd Viennese School of music (wiki/Second_Viennese_School) and thesubsequent Avant Guarde and Experiment music movements (wiki/Avant-garde_music and wiki/Experimental_music respectively).

These people wanted to create sounds that had never been made before. They succeeded, but in my opinion, they also are the main reason orchestral/non-pop music became so unpopular.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I'm a professional jazz-classical pianist and author.

Sometimes when you try to describe something "dissonance" would give you hard time. Because it's important to know what is before and after the intervals/the chord we are trying to describe.

Dissonance didn't get acceptable with some composers for sure. It was always with us. We try to name it. There is a sentence says "Art imitates the nature. Even a very simple thing might need big complexity to be able imitate in nature." Arnold Schoenberg creator of Atonal music.

If you are talking about only some intervals which was used in great pieces - which would make us accept it - You must check J.S. Bach compositions. There are many many dissonance sounds in excellent beauty.

On the other hand if you are talking about conceptional attitudes in harmonic movements you might want to check Stravinsky.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.