Although many tips on songwriting will focus on lyrics, chord progressions, and the “hook” of the chorus, few articles discuss the one thing that is so fundamental to all good music of any genre — from classical to pop, from jazz to rock.
This one thing is dissonance.
The use of dissonance in songwriting is perhaps one of the most underutilized and least understood concept among songwriters today. Yet when someone uses it exceptionally well — someone like Adele, for example — they stand out.
There are three things to know when using dissonance:
- knowing what dissonance actually is (not what you think it is)
- knowing how to intentionally (and artfully) create dissonance
- knowing when to use dissonance
And if you’re a beginning songwriter, this is definitely for you. Although there might be some technical sounding concepts, the actual application of these concepts is doable for any songwriter, even if you’re just starting.
And if you’re an intermediate or advanced songwriter, this is for you too. This topic will give you a fresh way of looking at techniques that you’ve likely been employing — either knowingly or purely by instinct — for years.
1. Understanding the True Nature of Dissonance (And Why Knowing Its Nature Matters)
For the most part, the human brain does not like dissonance. It makes people wince. The most common moment of dissonance happens when someone is singing out of tune — terribly out of tune — and people in the audience are plugging their ears.
But have you stopped to wonder why singing out of tune hurts our brains so much? It’s actually very interesting. As scientists continue to study the phenomenon, we have learned that our auditory systems really do have a preference about music. Our ear’s preference for consonance (i.e. pleasant-sounding harmonies) over dissonance is not just an easily dismissed cultural or psychological preference.
Let’s break this down into language that anyone can understand. Some musical notes, when played together, produce a very easy pattern for the brain to pick up. They’re easy because the mathematical ratio between the two notes comes close to nice, whole numbers. The perfect fifth, for example, has a simple 3:2 ratio.
A dissonant group of notes, however, has a complex ratio like, for example, 4.56879:11.889 — something very complicated. The brain has a really hard time picking up on this pattern. And as a result, it sends a signal to you that it does not like it. This signal creates tension in your sensory experience of the music.
So why does this matter?
The key word in all of this is “tension.” The ability to produce tension is a powerful tool in the hands of an artist. Writers can create tension by introducing conflicts into the plot, actors can do it with facial expressions, so why can’t songwriters use tension too? Tension is actually a very good thing in music. Some of the best songs ever written make very careful use of this artistic tool.
2. Knowing How to Intentionally (and Artfully) Create Dissonance
In the context of songwriting — i.e. sitting down at a piano or guitar, playing chords, and singing over them to try to find a melody — it’s fairly easy to identify what notes are dissonant. You’ll notice that when you strum a G chord, your voice will naturally want to sing one of the three notes that are in the chord — a G, B, or D. When you’re constructing your melody, try avoiding the notes in the chord for a beat or two. For example, your melody slides up to a B as you play a G chord. For the last beat or two of that chord, move the melody to a note that is not in the chord — maybe a C or an E — and then after a moment resolve it back into a note found in the chord. This will create compelling tension.
The song “Someone Like You” by Adele is a perfect example of this. Her voice wavers from the consonant notes of the melody and flirts with dissonant notes when you least expect it. There’s a reason her song makes people break down into tears in seconds. She injects little moments of tension in a way that perfectly matches the emotional climaxes of the song. When you’ve got harmonic tension matching emotional spikes, you’ve got songwriting dynamite.
Granted, not everyone can sing like Adele, but her flirtation with dissonant notes is not technically challenging. It usually involves moving a step up or down for a few moments.
3. Knowing When to Use Dissonance
In the rules of classical counterpoint, there is one guiding principle that seems to stick around even as it evolves from simple to complex uses of dissonance: don’t hit dissonant notes on the strong beats of measures. The safest way to introduce a dissonant note without making people wince is to slide into it on the weak beats — beat 2 or 4, for example — and use the dissonant note as a link between two consonant notes.
There are exceptions to this, of course — such as the little appoggiatura, quick little grace notes of dissonance that can be used on a downbeat to great effect — but the weak beat rule is a helpful guideline to get you started.
To be sure, this article is a reductionist view of an expansive topic. When you study Fifth Species Counterpoint in music theory — which are the official rules that govern classical masterpieces like Bach fugues — there’s a long list of what constitutes consonance and dissonance.
But the simple technique described above is sufficient for basic songwriting. And the more you play with dissonance and learn to use it tastefully in moderation, the more you’ll learn how to inject tension into your melody and create compelling emotional power with your songs.