Dissonance on the rise!

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One of the big changes in music from the twentieth century is that it gets more dissonant. Composers like Schoenberg aimed to free the dissonance  completely so that dissonant intervals and chords are treated no differently to consonant ones (serial music has some excellent examples of this approach). In the early years, however, dissonances are gradually used more freely and this page shows some steps along the way to give you an idea of how you might use dissonance in your work.

Although composers in the Western Classical Tradition do not absolutely always follow the conventions on the use of dissonance outlined elsewhere on this site, even later Romantic composers generally resolve most dissonances (other than dominant sevenths) by step. Like many, however, Chopin increasingly extends and emphasises dissonances in his music. In the example below, the dominant seventh sonority (F on top of a G major chord) is there right on the first beat and then starting on the second beat we have an added sixth (E) that very prominently clashes against the F. At the end of the extract we have an added ninth over a D chord. Neither of these dissonances on their own are wildly against common practice but most bars contain some kind of similar dissonance and the cumulative effect is of a higher level of dissonance overall.

Chopin Mazurka Op. 33 No. 3


In this Grieg example the dissonance are even more extended and the 9th over the C is not even resolved by step, leaping instead to a seventh.

Grieg String Quartet No. 1 in G minor Op.27, first movement

Grieg Quartet

The previous examples extend dissonances and increase their prominence but in this example from Debussy, the dissonances start to change more drastically. The added 9th and 4th at the end of this extract resolve to the Gb chord as you would expect but the Gb and Ab dominant seventh chords do not resolve at all – instead Debussy drifts between them.

The dissonances are on their way to becoming simply a colour, rather than something functional that needs to be resolved.

Debussy, Prelude No. 8, ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’


In this Sarabande the dissonance treatment is more radical again. the chords in the extract below are not based on a stack of thirds like normal major and minor triads and sevenths but on stacking up fourths, which makes for some really interesting (and totally non-functional) dissonances.

Debussy, ‘Sarabande from Pour le piano


Debussy Sarabande Quartal