Perception and Dissonance: The Challenge of Overcoming Genre

The unmistakable tinge of a major second was palpable. Harsh, crunching artificial noise emanated from a loosely tuned guitar. Heads bobbed and banged. The sound was note-against-note, a harmonic layout that offers more tension than it does release. Yet the audience didn’t seem to mind at all, screaming along in human articulation to the scream of amplified metal strings. The catharsis of a punk show is a huge part of why you go to a punk show, an emotion rooted in the tension created, in this case, by dissonance – of sound, words. The remnants of the evening were felt for days after in the refreshing sense of unification through a shared release of pain, anger, sadness.

There was also the evening of melodically disconnected sound, the evening where unimaginably dissonant chords layered over swishing drums and melodies that followed no sort of conventional narrative arc, broken up poetry accompanied scratching violins whose articulations made your skin crawl. Heads didn’t bang and the audience sat still for two hours. There wasn’t an exuberant catharsis, instead there was quiet rumination, the search for understanding trailed long after the evening through the desire to interpret sound itself and the way it made you feel.

Music, in its broadest sense, is a way for us to search for meaning and unification in a world that yearns for superficiality. The amount of possibilities within musical creation – both imaginable and yet to be conceived – are seemingly endless. We spend a great deal of effort trying to compartmentalize sonic worlds into easy-to-understand bite-size pieces. And so the possibility for generalization in explanation, too, is endless.

In a world of genre divides, how do we begin to decode the perception of dissonance? 

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DISSONANCE in music is a concept that it seems many choose to shy away from. I heard a radio program timidly introduce an indie artist’s new song as “dissonant”, uncomfortable laughs and awkward comments ensued. I know that many avoid interacting with new music for its highbrow persona due, in some cases, to its regular implementation of unconventional ideas of sound. 

Dissonance can exist harmonically, as a chord with notes stacked on top of each other, or melodically, through interval leaps of sizes that don’t ring harmoniously in our ears and don’t follow conventional story arcs. The prevailing sense is that dissonance is difficult to listen to, that consonance and harmonious sonic landscapes welcome the listener while dissonant sonic landscapes reject them. Yet it is difficult to accept this as a full reality, since the backbone of music is tension and release, synonymous to the resolution of dissonance to consonance.

Our understanding of the world is our own mind’s perception of reality. Music is not immune to this inconsistency. It is impossible to know another’s perception, which renders the musical experience deeply personal and inherently subjective. We do try to explain our listenings with theoretical terms, and different minds offer criticisms of the same works. Subjectivity, however, is a crucial part of the dissection of the implications of musical dissonance.

If the prevailing force in the rejection or acceptance of “difficult” music is the existence, or lack thereof, of dissonance, then it is the dissonance that is labeled the problem. But, what if it was not the harmonic and melodic content of the music, but rather the compartmentalization and discussion surrounding it?

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In the two examples that open this essay, the difference in the perception of dissonance stems from the difference in the genre’s surface intent. Punk is a genre built by and for collective sociopolitical and emotional action. New music is read as academic, built for the experimentation of sound worlds both new and old. With these generalizations in the forefront of the mind, it becomes nearly impossible to separate the art from the perception of the art. 

Of course, preconceived notions are only one piece of the puzzle. A major difference at hand is the concert experience itself. A punk concert is a communal experience rooted in audience interaction and participation. New music, and classical music, lend themselves to internal reflection rather than external exuberance. With concert hall rules, such as the love-to-hate-it “no clapping between movements”, an entirely different musical experience ensues, yielding a restrained emotionality. This is the utter opposite of, say, a mosh pit.

At a punk concert, we may assume there will be dissonance – cognitive and sonic – and we may intend to be part of this sonic world, embodying its landscapes. We may assume a new music concert will provide dissonance, but it will be a thought-provoking experimentation rather than an exuberant cry for change. This is a preconceived notion.

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The root problem with the preconceived perception of genre, based in the ways we discuss different genres of music and their historical accessibilities or lack thereof, is that it is based on the assumption that dissonance is an undesired sonic quality. Yet, when we experience dissonance it doesn’t necessarily yield this rejection. It is impossible to write off an entire sonic concept as undesirable, there is no telling what sounds will speak to us and which we will perceive to be tasteless. The goal, then, on a grand scale, is to achieve genre discussions that surround the music itself rather than the generalized perceptions surrounding its genre. 

The goal for us as individuals is to begin to stretch our minds away from the generalizations we carry within ourselves about soundscapes, and to learn to delve into musical experiences regardless of their histories. To enter a sound world with an open mind – and exit with an individual perception unrelated to the news the next day, or even our friends we leave a concert with. 

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Both concerts began with massive potential energy that blossomed into kinetic energy, inspiring their audiences to think, to learn, to discover, to hope, to dream, to fight, to be. The perception of dissonance did not change this outcome. In fact, one could argue that the dissonance only increased the energy, pushing the intangible vibrancy further into the air. We cannot shy away from sound that challenges simply because of our perceptions.

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