Living in the Dissonance

“That was beautiful!”

I had just finished giving a piano recital at a church where some friends attended. I was ready to thank him for the compliment when he added, “I didn’t really care for the dissonant section in the middle of Joy to the World, but the ending was great!”

I still nodded and said thank you, but my heart sank at his words. The “dissonant section” was my favorite moment in the piece -- it was free flowing, in a minor key, and with complicated chords providing the space to be expressive. “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…” Sure, I was proud of the triumphant ending in a technical way. (Lots of running octaves will do that for any pianist with small hands.) But to me, such an ending, albeit required for a conclusion, was flat and empty without the other.

I certainly wasn’t the first musician to experience resistance to musical dissonance. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was performed to a rioting audience at its premier -- while not the only factor, its startling harmonies and rhythms contributed to that reaction. And while Stravinsky was a pioneer in his day, musicians have been experimenting with dissonance throughout musical history. For the Romantic composers of the late 19th century, it was daring new chord progressions and drifting tonal centers. For the Classical composers, it was staying in the dominant key for longer than was customary before resolving to a settled tonic chord at the end, and even for Bach, the father of Western music, it was composing in new keys previously shunned by the composers around him because they were less naturally consonant.

Dissonance attracts us as artists, but often makes our audiences uncomfortable. As the audience adjusts to the latest harmonic development and finds it acceptable, we as musicians search for a new way to push the boundaries of our tonal constraints. As a Christian seeking to reflect God’s beauty in our art, it can be tempting to fall into the trap of believing that this desire for dissonance is not glorifying to God. We can easily assume that music should sound “pretty” to be suited to the church.

And yet, a deeper probing will reveal that belief as flawed, both musically and theologically. Dissonance and its resolution forms the very foundation of Western tonal centers, even at the basic level of tonic and dominant triads. As we posit that art is fundamentally both a tool to understand our world and to reflect its beauty, is it any wonder that this pattern of consonance, dissonance, and resolution mirrors the Biblical meta-narrative of creation, fall, and redemption?

We are created as humans toward that redeemed end, the resolution, and yet we are called to live our lives in the tension that awaits it. As we seek to create art that reflects the world in which we live, the art should point to the purpose for which we were created (the beauty), but also to the reality of the fallen state in which we live (the clashing harmonies). When such art is met with resistance by the church, that, too, becomes a mirror, as we realize that resistance is our very response to the Maker. We fight against the music we do not understand, and simply want to see His technical capabilities on display, refusing to trust that in the bleakest parts of life, there may be more space to see His glory.

It is in these moments -- when life is bare, when the clutter is removed and a few crunch chords remain, or when the notes are so clustered together that we yearn for nothing more than their resolution. It is often in this space that we see the most artistic moments of our God.