Cacophony: Dissonance in Modern Music
In recent weeks, I’ve found myself moving to music with a more dissonant edge. Perhaps it was the stress of exam season that brought it on, or the ever-looming dread of the general election. Regardless of its trigger, it’s been a great stress reliever. This led me to question what it is that makes dissonance so appealing to me, and why it’s so effective.
I realise that some people may not fully know what dissonance is. My most common response from my friends when asked what is so appealing about it was “I have no idea what that is”. It is difficult to define properly what dissonance is, but put as simply as I can, it’s the opposite of harmony. Where harmony exists to cause pleasing sounds, dissonance exists to be uncomfortable. Imagine a series of musical notes that don’t quite mesh together – that’s dissonance.
Jazz, classical, math rock, hip-hop, alternative rock; all have seen their fair share of dissonance. Danny Brown’s latest album, Atrocity Exhibition, is a wonderful example of its use in hip-hop. As Brown raps about his struggles with drug addiction over distorted and disjointed beats, you get a sense of uneasiness, which beautifully illustrates the subject matter of the album. Kendrick Lamar similarly uses dissonance to get a specific vibe on songs – To Pimp A Butterfly employed a lot of different musical styles, and on songs like ‘u’, Kendrick uses atonal vocals to highlight his battle with suicidal thoughts and alcoholism. Dissonance is everywhere and has probably helped make some of your favourite albums.
Many people I asked claimed that dissonance added an uncomfortable edge that made the music more interesting. I can’t help but agree with this. Music that challenges us often makes us think more, meaning we can invest more of our time and effort into listening to it. Sonic Youth’s complex compositions are a great example of this. The de-tuned guitars and anarchic scales are not always comfortable to listen to, but they undoubtedly make it more interesting for the listener.
On the heavier side of dissonance exists bands like Fugazi, a pioneering band in the Washington hardcore scene due to their moving away from simple chord progressions into more complex song structures. Fugazi often used long drones and unusual chord progressions to move them away from the typical punk powerchord style. This transition away from the norm is no doubt one of the reasons why Fugazi are considered one of the most important bands within the hardcore punk scene.
Looking away from alternative rock music, free jazz artists like Sun Ra were also known for using broken down chord progressions to break down the conventions of jazz. The end result is a kaleidoscope of sound that breaks down the restrictions of the genre. This lack of structure and defying of our expectations is definitely a contributing factor to why dissonance is enjoyable.
I also find myself relating much more easily to bands with a dissonant edge. Whilst it would be easy to claim bands such as Cap’n Jazz and Algernon Cadwallader have bad vocals and that their compositions are disjointed and confusing, this raw and expressive form of playing music makes their music feel genuine and true to self. Dissonance implies some level of imperfection in music, a raw expression of emotion, which can often lead us to vicariously express ourselves. In the same way that we can sometimes relate to abstract art better than conventional art, we can also relate to abstract music better than conventional music.