Shining frontman Jørgen Munkeby theorises on the rise of dissonance in popular music
(photo credit: Kim Erlandsen)
We’re incredibly excited to bring you a feature piece from Jørgen Munkeby, vocalist, guitarist, saxophonist and general frontman of Norwegian’ band Shining, who after years as a jazz outfit exploded onto the metal scene in 2010 with their avante-garde jazz/industrial metal hybrid album Blackjazz, which also serves as neat catch-all term for the style of music they play.
As accomplished jazz musicians often are, Jørgen is a font of knowledge regarding music, and in this piece he discusses the phenomenon of how increasing dissonance in popular music can be explained.
If you haven’t heard it already, Shining’s new track “I Won’t Forget” dropped last week – listen to it here!
Paris, 29th May 1913:
Oslo, 18th June 2010:
The story from 1913 above is taken from Wikipedia, describing the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” almost 100 years ago. The composition would probably not raise a single eyebrow today, and risk being lumped into the same category as any other Tchaikovsky piece.
The paragraph from 2010 is self-experienced, from when I personally performed with my Blackjazz band Shining on Norwegian National TV, in between the straightest of our country’s pop acts, at the yearly music roundup TV show being viewed by the vast majority of the Norwegian people. The viewers and audience voted by text messages, leading to our band winning a huge prize given out by the most commercial successful pop band ever to come out of Norway, A-ha.
Before reading on, I would suggest comparing a recording of “The Rite of Spring” to “The Madness and the Damage Done” (Indie Recordings, 2010), which was the track played on the TV show:
The introduction serves as an example of how we, over long periods of time, have grown accustomed to a higher and higher degree of dissonance in music. What was once harsh and dissonant is now perceived as soft and consonant.
My hypothesis is:
Over generations, humans have constantly been craving a higher and higher degree of dissonance in order to experience the same effect of pleasure and interest, and this gradual development will continue to move in the same direction in the future.
Just like a junkie is craving for an ever increase in dosage, the human hearing mechanism is constantly searching for a higher degree of dissonance.
But where the junkie’s raising of tolerance towards a chemical drug takes place over only a few years, the slow movement in our collective tolerance for dissonance in music is happening over generations. Our minds are slowly getting accustomed to the current level of dissonance and intensity in music, and as a result are searching for more complex and dissonant sounds in order not to get bored, or in order to experience the exiting sensation and high we once were able to obtain from smaller doses of dissonance.
Dissonance and intensity
Dissonance, definition: “A harsh, disagreeable combination of sounds; discord.”
- The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
In music, dissonances tend to produce a high degree of intensity. Dissonances also produce a feeling of unrest and instability, and a push towards being resolved.
Dissonances are usually categorized in degrees, on a scale from less to more dissonant. In his book “The Craft of Musical Composition, vol. 1” (New York: Associated Music Publishers; London: Schott, 1942), Paul Hindemith categorized all the musical intervals into their corresponding different degrees of dissonance, from the octave (least) to the tritone (most).
The term dissonance has its clear parallels outside of the world of music. In more general terms, dissonance is like a triangle turned upside down on its point, waiting to fall down on one of its sides. Anything that contributes to raising the level of intensity, is in this article treated as a parallel force to dissonance.
Therefore, the following musical phenomena are added to the list of things that raise the intensity:
* Distortion in instrument sounds (fuzz etc.)
* High density instrumentation (many instruments and many separate parts)
* High density mixes (heavy use of dubs and compression)
* Distortion in full mixes by the mastering process (clipping and heavy limiting)
* Hard percussive sounds
* Rapid and pronounced rhythms
In visual expressions such parallels could be:
* Strong colors
* Sharp edges and hard geometric figures (triangles as opposed to circles)
* Sharp contrasts
* Provocative imagery (for instance of sex and violence)
* Dense and crowded imagery
* Rapid movements or fast cuts between pictures
In written texts the following elements could produce the same effect:
* Politically controversial ideas
* The use of exclamation marks
* The use of caps-lock
* Sentences that don’t make sense
* Repeated repetitions
* The use of many consonants, as opposed to vowels
In this article, I use the word ‘consonance’ in a relatively broad manner, to refer to the opposite of dissonance. Consonance is a state of rest, with a low degree of intensity. Consonance produces a feeling of stability; with no strong need to move.
We want more!
Remember how you thought your parent’s music was boring? Remember how your parents described the music you listened to as “just noise”?
This is no unique situation for our generation: Over the course of 400 years, classical music has moved from stable compositions firmly rooted in strict rules of tonality, to a place where almost no rules are left un-broken: With Bach and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, tonality was stretched and we were dared to stray away from the comfort zone of a powerful and omnipotent root note. Wagner made us stretch even more, until we almost lost sight of home base, while Mahler added further to the joy of this exploration. After getting accustomed to harmonically leaving home for long periods of time, Schönberg did his best to shatter the safe structures of tonality once and for all. But Hindemith helped us sow Humpty Dumpty back together again, by explaining how the old and the new fit together. After a fresh and new start, Ligeti took music and made it into concrete, almost physical building blocks of pure everlasting dissonances (hence the elongated clusters in A Space Odyssey, which is definitely not found in the Strauss opener), while John Cage fucked with the very definition of music itself in his work 4’33”.
As if this steady rise of dissonance in classical music isn’t impressive enough, modern rhythmical popular music has gone through the same evolution in less than 100 years, with an even more enormous stretch in the visual and thematic elements: Elvis’s sexual hip movements gave way to the unruly hair mops of The Beatles. The Sex Pistols upped the ante, but was beaten by a long chalk by murderous black metal. Way back in the days, the tritone musical interval (the interval between for instance G and C#) was prohibited by the church due to the interval’s close ties to the Devil himself. Nowadays this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, with its role in tritone substitutions and chromatic voice leading. The tritone was also the essential ingredient in the defining riff of Black Sabbath’s most famous song, and even then he didn’t bother to pay us a visit.
And the audience applauds loudly (at least 20 years after)! To be fair, the reason for this impressive evolution seems to be simple:
We don’t like to be bored! We crave the thrill of dissonance and intensity. We want more and more, until the point of nausea.
We want a piece of music or any other form of entertainment, to be above the threshold of interest/boringness, but below the level of “too much” or “too complex”. It’s the opposite of Einstein’s quote: “Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
No one raises an eyebrow
What do the kids listen to today?
Skrillex pumps out waveforms as square as his iPad screen. Even after the loudness war is done with it’s squashing, the mp3 encoder adds a further distorted shine. Britney Spears dances in a leather jacket full of black metal studs in her “Till the World Ends”, while Lady Gaga bleeds to death during her VMA Award 2009 performance. Madonna’s “Erotica” is omitting the word that rhymes with “truck”, while even a heavy case of dyslexia won’t hinder anyone from managing to decode Rihanna’s “S&M”. Today any teenager knows what ‘fisting’ is, but has never been in a fight. Nothing is further from being provocative than the amount of steps between G and C#.
I need to throw up
Just as the average craving for intensity varies between generations, it also varies between individuals in a contemporary population. A single piece of music might be exciting and intoxicating for one person, but above tolerance and complexity level for another person, resulting in confusion and discomfort rather than pleasure for the latter.
When two colors mix, they form a new color to our eyes. When two musical pitches combine, they form an interval with its own identity and feeling, but they do not blend completely, and the ear can still pick out each unique pitch. When listening to music, our brain is performing the tremendous task of instantaneously deciphering one single waveform into its different components. A full mix of drums, bass, piano and vocals are split up into the respective instruments. Within the piano, for instance, our brain continues to split up the chord into each of the containing notes – but the brain doesn’t stop there; each of the piano strings emit up to 16 different sine wave pitches (the Harmonic Series), and the ear immediately discerns each and every single of these pitches. Our brain is effectively functioning as a constant and lightening fast Fourier analyzer, a feat that would outshine even a modern HAL 9000.
In addition to a dense instrumentation, the use of many dissonant intervals or a general high degree of distortion will directly result in added overtones and difference tones. This will create a complex waveform, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it.
But, based on the enormous and conspicuous difference in mental faculty between individual humans, there is no wonder that our brains’ ability to perform the above analyzing task also varies greatly between persons. A waveform incorporating an amount of information large enough for one brain to deem it interesting, might be too complex for another brain.
The latter brain is either not as accustomed to such a task as the first brain, or does not have enough expertise or resourcefulness in that area, and basically gives up trying to make sense of it all due to information overload. It will therefore interpret the information as more or less meaningless noise. In effect, the latter brain simply has a lower threshold for “too much info”.
But the latter brain’s threshold for excitement is probably also correspondingly lower, which will likely result in a general preference for simpler music for this person. This could help explain why some people like a certain piece of music, while another person will truly perceive it as “just noise”.
Because younger generations have grown up with a larger amount of distortion and information, they will also be more accustomed to analyzing and deciphering this amount of info, and will therefore also be inclined to prefer distorted and intense music more than older generations.
Future development and conclusion
Personal variance in taste put aside, the general historical movement has been a one-way street: From less to more, from consonance to dissonance. Today’s harsh music, will be tomorrow’s boring background music.
Let’s assume most people reading this are fans of today’s exiting and cutting edge music. There is reason to be very positive in regards to the future development of music. The constant search for a higher degree of intensity is pushing the music exploration forward. Due to the internet, the spreading and resulting exhaustion of ideas is sped up tenfold, and will further increase the frequency of new ideas needed and the erosion of old and boring truths.
I like new Britney Spears better than old Britney Spears. I like Lady Gaga better than Madonna. I like The Dillinger Escape Plan better than King Crimson, and I like Skrillex better than DJ Tiesto.
A more alarming prediction would be that my own Blackjazz releases will be considered soft and boring before I can grow a flabby belly. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to hearing what music will sound like when that happens!