Consonance and Dissonance

Putting harmony into a broad context can help give young composers a way to organize consonant intervals as well as resolve dissonant intervals.

What do we mean by a broad definition of harmony?

Harmony = any two sounds ocurring at the same time.

As you know, the idea of what two notes sound consonant or dissonant together is a subjective preference. Since the beginning of human history composers have pushed the boundaries and expanded tonality. During the 20th century leading composers in many styles of music dispatched with the very notion of Western harmony to create their own rules governing the harmony in their music. Where does that lead us interms of present day harmony? There are two things to consider when helping young composers grapple with the concept of consonance and dissonance in their music:

  1. Younger students are primarily influenced by the most basic western idea of consonance and dissonance and want their own music to "sound good."
  2. The most basic ear training for hearing tertiary harmony is a realistic, achievable first goal that can help students explore music around them.

Harmony Rule 1

To get students started in controlling dissonances in their piece we will use a contrived harmonic rule we'll call Harmony Rule 1 Don't worry this is going to be the only harmonic rule we'll use!

Harmony Rule 1 says:

Letters a STEP apart in the musical aplphabet = A Dissonance

Letters a SKIP apart in the musical alphabet = A Consonance

This rule makes the subjective choice about steps and skips in the musical alphabet. One important thing to note is that we need not discern between 1/2 steps and whole steps. E to F is a step just as C to D is a step. We also need not discern between major and minor thirds. C to E is a skip and E to G is also a skip. During a second or third composition students can learn about "two kinds of steps" to explore 1/2 steps and whole steps.

Controlling Dissonance

We want to stress that dissonances (or clashes) are not necessarily bad. In order to give our music a sense of movement we need to hear dissonant notes resolving from dissonance to consonance. Controlling these resolutions is the goal for our young composers!

Preliminary Activities for Students

Here is a simple activity that can help students experience Harmony Rule 1.

Use iPad apps like PlayPad, Garageband, Thumbjam or any other app that allows for melody performance. Or, use classroom instruments like the piano or Orff pitched percussion.

Student Directions: (students should work in pairs)

Part 1

  1. Working with a partner create and perform a short melody of 4 or 5 notes.
  2. Help your partner play another melody along with the first melody that uses ONLY consonant notes (skips).

Part 2

  1. Create and perform another short melody.
  2. Working with your partner create a second melody that uses one dissonant note. Resolve the dissonance to a consonance on the very next note.

Now let's do this in Noteflight!

Add a 2nd Instrument to Your Piece

  1. Go to your composition and add a second instrument to your piece. (Click on the first staff, go to the Staff Menu and select "Add Part Below Staff."
  2. Add notes only to your A section.
  3. Use mostly skips or consonances in you new part. If you have a dissonance resolve it to a consonance on the very next note. Do not have two dissonances in a row.
  4. In your new instrument color all of the consonant notes BLUE. Color any dissonant notes RED.

Go to your piece and add a 2nd Instrument

What About Different Octaves

The simplest way of analyzing steps, skips and leaps is to think of the intervals as they relate to the musical alphabet regardless of different octaves. For example, we'll treat the interval of a 9th the same as a 2nd or step. While these intervals sound very different it is helpful for the young composer to relate the intervals to the musical alphabet only.


Post a reply to the topic about Consonance and Dissonance here: Talk About Our Approach to Harmony

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