The Importance Of Dissonance

Expanded lesson from my guitar teacher with attempt to explain the basic necessity for dissonance and diversion from diatonics in modern music.

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So, starting off, this isn't an article into how to make ultra super br00tal whatever-metal, this should apply to all readers, although ultra super br00tal whatever-metal shall come later. Dissonance is a blanket term used to describe bits in music that don't sound "right" musically (that's my perspective of it). The most well-known technique of dissonance is chromatics, which is the same scale for every instrument everywhere, and if you don't know what the chromatic scale is, start from any root note (that is to say, any note) and play:
R - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT - sT
R = Root = Starting note T = Tone = Whole step = 2 frets sT = Semitone = Half step = 1 fret Basically, pop music isn't great. I'm not trying to drag the entire genre down, or force an opinion onto anyone, but for the purpose of this article, pop music should be one of the furthest things from your mind, as diatonics are thrown out of the window. Dissonance is often the key element to a song or certain type of music that makes them what they are. Dissonance can be achieved in many ways, from subtle changes in scales and modes, to full out chromatics and casual disregard for the listener's girly mentality. The most recognized pieces of music are the ones which really go deep into these realms and beyond, experimenting with structure as well as tonality, and this also explains why a hit from The Beatles will outlast a hit from Lady Gaga. Some examples include: "Bohemian Rhapsody" - Queen "The Rite Of Spring" - Igor Stravinsky "A Day In The Life" - The Beatles "43% Burnt" - Dillinger Escape Plan "For The Love Of God" - Steve Vai We'll start with an easy thing first, which is one of my favorite modes ever, the Lydian mode. A basic rundown: Lydian is the 4th mode of the melodic minor scale, although due to its ascending pattern and tonality, feels like major/minor. Its commonly used in American media (TV and Film), a famous example being "The Simpsons" theme tune, and is also used by guitar virtuosos, most notably the aforementioned Steve Vai and also Joe Satriani. In fact, one the best examples of a nearly-purely Lydian song is "Flying In A Blue Dream " by Satch (back when he had hair)
The Lydian mode is played as follows:
R - T - T - T - sT - T - T - st
R = Root = Starting note T = Tone = Whole step = 2 frets up sT = Semitone = Half step = 1 fret up The key note in play here is the 4th tone, which is the note that differentiates Lydian from your standard major scale (if you play C major and C Lydian one after the other, only one note changes). In a scale of C, it is a pesky little F#. In tab (I use D standard, for E standard, just transpose the notes 2 frets down on your guitar), remember to alternate pick:
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------------|
F|---------------6-7-6-----------------------------------------|
C|---------6-7-9-------9-7-6-----------------------------------|
G|---5-7-9-------------------9-7-5-----------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
Playing the scale straight makes it feel major, but the minor feeling comes from the pentatonic alteration:
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------------|
F|-----------6-------------------------------------------------|
C|-------6-7---7-6---------------------------------------------|
G|---5-9-----------9-5-----------------------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
An example of the Lydian used to create both a major and minor feel is this song by Devin Townsend, excluding the pre-chorus (which isn't in Lydian or the diatonics, but does prove the usefulness of dissonance to highlight key points in a song):
One of my favourite tools for making or inspiring me to write with abstract dissonance is a scale called Super Locrian. Although almost strictly used in jazz guitar solo's (maybe for like a bar, or if the guitarist slips up, which is incredibly unlikely in jazz), super locrian highlights the use of dissonance in a scale pretty well, because when using only a few notes from the scale, it still contains enough notes to produce a melody of sorts when ordered in a certain way. The scale goes like so:
R - sT - T - sT - T - T - T - T
At first it just sounds really weird, and it is, it sounds even weirder than the whole tone, but dont worry, this is just an example scale that I'm suggesting to get you to experiment with dissonance. In tab, again in C:
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------------|
F|---------------5-7-5-----------------------------------------|
C|---------4-6-8-------8-6-4-----------------------------------|
G|---5-6-8-------------------8-6-5-----------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
Another one of my favorites is the Enigmatic scale, which is quite hard to play at first:
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
A|-------------------------------------------------------------|
F|----------------6-7-6----------------------------------------|
C|---------6-8-10-------10-8-6---------------------------------|
G|---5-6-9---------------------9-6-5---------------------------|
D|-------------------------------------------------------------|
And is even less ear friendly. To highlight the extreme ends of dissonance, here are four songs. 2 use dissonances melodically, the other 2 use it as a rhythmical-cross-harmonic device (here comes the super ultra something something): Tosin Abasi playing "Song Of Solomon"
Hiromi Uehara, featuring a song/solo
The Dillinger Escape Plan - "When Good Dogs Do Bad Things"
And if Death Metal isn't your thing, then try Stravinsky instead, and this peice should help you understand what bitonality is, as well as highlighting melodic passages over disharmony:
So, I hope this article has helped in some way, other than just throwing random things in your face/ears. The aim was just to bring awareness to the strengths of dissonance and what it can do to help you as a musician find your own way in music. ~Epi

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Silverpack
    You made a slight mistake, the Lydian is a mode from the natural minor scale, not the melodic one. Still, it's a clever article, really helpful on how to avoid redundant pop harmonies. Well done !
    W4T3V3R
    I would also question some of the accuracy here, most obviously that lydian IS a diatonic scale. Secondly, making use of a mode isnt dissonance. I think you just got confused on the idea that dissonance is just an irregular melody. Which isnt exactly right. Its like playing the root and 7th together, it clashes. (I'd have put Reuben - No One wins the war intro for an example of dissonance.)
    pinguinpanic
    Well written article, but either you got dissonance all wrong, or I have. I have no idea what dissonance has to do with any of those scales, especially with lydian since all modes of major have the same potential for building dissonance, and to be honest dissonance is often best served with accidentals.
    EpiExplorer
    pinguinpanic wrote: Well written article, but either you got dissonance all wrong, or I have. I have no idea what dissonance has to do with any of those scales, especially with lydian since all modes of major have the same potential for building dissonance, and to be honest dissonance is often best served with accidentals.
    Depends on your perception of the term, I guess. I've been told and I understand it as whenever something is done non-diatonically that enhances rather than detracts. I use the Lydian example because of the F#/peculiar 4th to highlight the slight divergence in that mode. I mean, if you played the root, 3rd and then 4th in Lydian then without context from the other notes in the scale, like the 5th or 7th, then it sounds 'off', but sounds off in a good way. Its only slight in its effect, but it just sounds good. Should also add, if what I've said IS wrong, I can only apologize.
    EpiExplorer
    Just to ad, this was meant to have the song Obscura by Gorguts, but its not in the article for some reason.
    vIsIbleNoIsE
    i just skimmed the article, but i must say that Hiromi Uehara song was amazing! thanks.
    jdenicholls
    I'm not trying to be a hater, but in my opinion this was not that clearly explained and not as informative as it should have been. I do however applaud any attempts to enlighten people on this subject, as it's vital for understanding what makes artists such as the Beatles so exceptional. As this is a guitar playing website it makes sense you'd focus on the scale element to extend people's lead playing, but I feel for the best understanding you need to cover it from a chord/key based perspective. It's best not really to think of harmony and dissonance as two separate ideas, but as two ends of a spectrum. Pop is used to working within the confines of the Major (Ionian) Key and, the Natural Minor (Aeolian) Key. If we're talking about C or Am, this means the diatonic chords will be C, Dm, Em, F, G and Am. These are the most harmonious chords a pop songwriter can use (in C, just transpose for other keys), and as such most songs don't deviate from them. Since the Beatles did not study theory and had a background in blues, rock n roll and music hall classics, they experimented with chords outside of the diatonic constrictions, and melodies that did stick to the standard Ionian (Major) and Aeolian (Natural Minor) modes. So in the key of C they might throw in a D, E, Fm or Bb. These chords didn't sound outright dissonant but they created new, exotic and unfamiliar cadences which gave the music an edge by pulling the tonal centre (Root note) away from it's origin. You can think of this as a semi-key change. From a harmonic (and by attachment, melodic) perspective it is all about the cadences (the chord changes, in essence).
    hardcore81
    good use of devin townsend, bastard is one of my favorite songs of his, the sound is chilling
    EpiExplorer
    Silverpack wrote: You made a slight mistake, the Lydian is a mode from the natural minor scale, not the melodic one. Still, it's a clever article, really helpful on how to avoid redundant pop harmonies. Well done !
    Cheers for the correction.
    Sofa
    I'm sorry, but it's clear that you don't really know what you're talking about...
    Revocati0n
    This wasnt really about the impotance of dissonance, merely showing one how to make dissonance using scales and keys. You should've put some old Ion Dissonance up there.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Well done, man! I'll have to listen to the examples later. But I personally love dissonance. I often work in chromatic notes or full-out dissonant passages in my songs.
    Alreddyded
    Lydian starts on the 4th degree of the major scale, not the melodic minor scale. Also I'm fairly certain none of the pieces above are modal (modes being an ancient device that died in the renaissance period - for good reason), and are just major keys with alot of emphasis on that 4th degree. I also think this lacked alot on what dissonance is, of course using chromatics will be dissonant, and the exotic scales you described are filled with dissonance but there was really no detail on much more practical uses like chord extensions, suspensions, false relations, usages of diminished and augmented chords, blues notes, tension and release etc which can really give an understanding (and have certainly helped me alot) in composing and solo improv.
    Panasonic3
    Bad Kharmel wrote: EpiExplorer wrote: Just so you know lydian is diatonic, diatonic= a major scale and all its modes, basically any 8 note scale/mode is diatonic, if the scale has all 12 notes then its chromatic, and if it only uses 5 notes its pentatonic, these three are the most common in western music, but Indian ragas and what not can have 6 or even 7 notes, be careful with your accuracy
    diatonic means 7 notes. if it was 8 notes, it would be octotonic.
    snuffaluff
    i think all the people correcting the "theory" parts of this are missing the point. at the very end it says:
    The aim was just to bring awareness to the strengths of dissonance and what it can do to help you as a musician find your own way in music.
    the goal was not to teach you any theory but to highlight the ways you can use dissonance to improve your music.
    PrinceBeelzebut
    Can you please recognize the kind of dissonant chord structure used here.I am really interested in these kind of Death Metal bands:-
    Iommianity
    I appreciate this article. Gorguts and Voivod are easily my two favourite bands in death/thrash. Some of their most beautiful harmonies are honestly their ugliest.
    Keth
    A dominant seventh chord is also dissonant, and is used all throughout pop music (and almost every other genre).
    Bad Kharmel
    EpiExplorer wrote: pinguinpanic wrote: Well written article, but either you got dissonance all wrong, or I have. I have no idea what dissonance has to do with any of those scales, especially with lydian since all modes of major have the same potential for building dissonance, and to be honest dissonance is often best served with accidentals. Depends on your perception of the term, I guess. I've been told and I understand it as whenever something is done non-diatonically that enhances rather than detracts. I use the Lydian example because of the F#/peculiar 4th to highlight the slight divergence in that mode. I mean, if you played the root, 3rd and then 4th in Lydian then without context from the other notes in the scale, like the 5th or 7th, then it sounds 'off', but sounds off in a good way. Its only slight in its effect, but it just sounds good. Should also add, if what I've said IS wrong, I can only apologize.
    Just so you know lydian is diatonic, diatonic= a major scale and all its modes, basically any 8 note scale/mode is diatonic, if the scale has all 12 notes then its chromatic, and if it only uses 5 notes its pentatonic, these three are the most common in western music, but Indian ragas and what not can have 6 or even 7 notes, be careful with your accuracy
    Good_Lord
    Wow, now I'm in love with that song from Townsend. And, thanks this is a great article !
    Human371
    Nice point. I hate when I jam with people and they say "wait, that note isn't in key!" Rules are made to be broken, and great things often result when they do. also, great song examples, seriously!
    FrauVfromPoB
    W4T3V3R wrote: I would also question some of the accuracy here, most obviously that lydian IS a diatonic scale. Secondly, making use of a mode isnt dissonance.
    Modes are only diatonic when used in the "proper" way, ex. playing a Lydian starting on a B in the key of A. It's still A major. But a common jazz technique is to look at the I chord in a progression as the II chord in another key, and then play a Lydian scale based off the I chord. The result is one note that's out of key (the aforementioned dissonance), which provides an interesting sound.