Resolving Everyday Dissonance, Musical or Otherwise

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dissonance tritone

Augmented Fourth

Musical dissonance occurs when two notes played simultaneously have a clash of wills. The notes just don’t play well together. The interval shown here is the classic example of a dissonant interval: an augmented fourth, a tritone.

Hundreds of years ago, dissonance was essentially prohibited in music. The perceived conflict between tones was held to be incompatible with musical expression.

But as music developed over the centuries, our ideas of dissonance changed. Sound combinations that we now take very much as a matter of course would have sent medieval listeners running for an exorcist.

In a similar way, we have come to expect a certain amount of dissonance in our daily lives. Conflict between our working and personal lives and the many demands on our time and energy create tension that can bring us to a crisis point.

Music theory teaches us how the tension created by dissonance can be eased and eliminated. Students learn about “dissonance treatment” and correct ways to resolve conflicts between notes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find a similar way to resolve the tension we encounter every day?

Tension, whether we encounter it music or elsewhere in our lives, is the outward sign of an inner conflict, a dissonance. It leaves us in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for a resolution, for the other shoe to drop.

There are only two possible outcomes. One is for the tension to continue until a breaking point is reached. (Drop the other shoe already!) The other is for the tension to be eased by the resolution of the dissonance, a change that allows the music to move forward. (Ah…the second shoe at last.)

But how do you make the change, find the resolution that will dissipate the tension and let your energy flow again? Perhaps one of the following examples will resonate with you.

Example 1: Tension in your playing. This could be physical tension that compromises your ease of playing or inner tension that affects your enjoyment of your playing.

If the tension is left unresolved: Playing music can become a chore, lacking in musicality and freedom. Physical tension also carries the risk of pain and lasting injury.

Consider these changes: Slow down your practice so you can start a new habit of relaxing your mind and body while you play. Try some slow gentle technical exercises to refresh and calm your playing. Your mind and body might also benefit from some therapeutic massage.

Resolution: Pain-free playing and practicing that is beautiful, expressive and relaxed.

Example 2: Tension between goals and actions. Have you ever felt so busy with the things you have to do that you don’t get to the things you want to do?

If the tension is left unresolved: Your inability to find time to work toward your goals will leave you feeling like you are going in circles or frustrated with your lack of progress.

Consider these changes: Do your best to align your schedule with your priorities. At the very least, set aside some time every day, even if it’s only a few minutes, to take one step toward your goal. Even the tiniest step will keep you moving along the right path.

Resolution: You will experience a continuing sense of achievement, which will help keep you energized and motivated to do more.

Example 3: Tension between your realities and your expectations. Are you trying to play music that’s too hard? Planning to practice 3 hours a day but you have toddlers at home? New to the harp but wondering why you aren’t progressing fast enough?

If the tension is left unresolved: Prepare for a massive headache from butting your head against a wall. Unrealistic expectations will bring you stress, anxiety, and even anger.

Consider these changes: Begin by accepting that your situation is only temporary – you will make progress, your children will grow, you will over time develop the ability to play more difficult music. Give yourself the gift of understanding, and then find a teacher who can help you make a plan to achieve your goals in a reasonable timeframe. (And you may need to find a babysitter, too..)

Resolution: You will find it easier to learn and grow musically when you have a plan that works for you now and will take you into the future.

Just to drop the other shoe, here’s the resolution of that tritone at the top of this post:

dissonance resolution

Resolution: Minor Sixth

What is the resolution you’re looking for?

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  • Margaret Neate

    I started to learn to play the harp three years ago, on a lever harp. I am now finding that the range of music I can play on the lever harp is becoming frustratingly restricted. I am now faced with a dissonant situation: the frustration of limited music v. the expense, weight and size of the resolution.


    • Carole Smith

      Hi Margaret,

      I have been there, thinking the lever harp was restricting music I wanted to play. I took the plunge and bought a pedal harp. Yes, it was pricey; and yes, it is big. But it brought me such freedom with my music. Everyone who sees is comments on how beautiful it is. Unless you plan to move it to other places to play, the weight can be tolerated. My recommendation is to make it happen.


  • Robert Stone

    I am 63, so I’ve had many years to think of these situations in and try to come up with resolutions that have worked for me. First let me say, that getting a early start in life is always an advantage because by the time you’re out of college, you’re expected to make a living on your own. So being organized, an accomplished musician early on, for example, being a good student, developing good habits, avoiding the bad ones, will all go a long way! Not that you won’t have to deal with all the things that cause problems, but you’ll be in a better position to deal with them. Life gets more complicated when your parents are no longer providing the essentials of life, housing, food, transportation, etc. It’s great having a partner to share all these responsibilities, but again, another challenge! We seem to work hard so we can get into college, then work hard in college so we can find a way to support ourselves afterwards, then continue, maybe starting a family, own a house, etc., be able to take vacations. There’s no easy solution, but it seems that it’s necessary to take time for yourself to unwind when the tension increases, like doing something else, reading a book, watching a tv program, going for a walk or exercise, gardening, something to get your mind off your problem and ease the tension. Not avoiding it but giving yourself the time and space to resolve it in a less stressful way! Some things are beyond your control. Woody Allen said that’s why people make movies and write books, so they can control the outcome and have “fairy tale” endings. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always come out the way we want it. Remember, life can be long. You can still accomplish many things and get satisfaction even if you don’t start young or have to delay due to other responsibilities. The answer is finding satisfaction in everything you do, even if it’s the most menial task. No one likes cleaning, but who won’t admit that afterwards, there is satisfaction in seeing things organized and tidy! Or who doesn’t take pride in their appearance, want to look good, wear nice clothes, be well groomed, what ever your style is? Yes, I’ve had to learn that I can’t always get everything done in one day, I can’t afford every item I want. I can’t play every piece of music I hear, but I can learn a piece measure by measure, even it’s agonizingly slow! And I can work towards all those things and find satisfaction in that, gradually getting to my goal. In “Zen and the Art of Archery”, the goal is not hitting the bulls eye, but in the process of learning all the form and discipline required to hit the bulls eye. This is the broader picture, one that encompasses all of our life, not the just the narrow focus of the target!


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