Chaos Within

A strictly musical treatise on harmony and dissonance

by Björn Wahlström

Harmony does not move. It rests in itself, content, lazy, and somewhat arrogant. Consonance and dissonance move, promises to be fulfilled or broken, seeking always more, struggling toward something. No rest.

Harmony bores us when unchallenged, and as much as we strive to achieve it when in dissonance, we rest on it only long enough to catch our breath, then to be thrown out again. Contrary to what musicians will tell you we build our dissonances not to create movement between different harmonies, but because they are as much in our nature as harmony itself. Harmony in itself is uninteresting.

Despite the fact that words like “unpleasant” and “grating” are often used to explain dissonance, in fact all music with a harmonic or tonal basis — even music which is perceived as generally harmonious — incorporates dissonance. The buildup and release of tension which can occur on every level – from the subtle to the crass – is to a great degree responsible for what we perceive as beauty, emotion, and expressiveness. There is fear, conflict, dispute, anger and the threat of chaos in dissonance; it knows not where it’s going, knows only its own restlessness. To say that all dissonances lead to harmony is a lie; uncertainty is in its nature, and so also in the nature of harmony. Isolde sings her Liebestod to the sleeping Tristan, climbing higher through the cycles of dissonances and relative harmony, and does not – can not – strive to that last harmonious chord, knows not how to escape the knowledge that her loved one lies dead before her. The cycle seems endless, but finally, in a brilliant and harmonious D minor the orchestra exits victorious on top, and the movement stops, Isolde falling dead with it, in harmony now herself. It appears to me that any good harmony must live with the fact that it will never go unchallenged, and that it perhaps even harbors the desire for dissonance within itself.