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Managing consonance-dissonance in diatonic tonality

 When Joseph Fux (1660-1741) describes - in the Gradus ad Parnassum - that some consonances such as the sixth or third are less perfect than the fifth for example, I have at first to accept this distinction in good faith. The fact is, as a musician of the 21st century with ears accustomed to a high level of dissonance, it's difficult to perceive these subtle dissonant-consonant relationships without some kind of explicit sign-posting. Only through practicing the exercises, by following the rules explicitly and painstakingly do I begin to feel the governing rules of consonance and dissonance of this style. Over a period of time I begin to feel more sensitive to certain intervals, to recognise them as performing certain functions within the musical texture. Fux's exercises help me to label and organise a diatonic musical fabric in a rich and meaningful way. 

         The results of this work of absorbing Fux's rules is therefore incredibly useful. For how often have I pursued the products of imagination with the feeling that I lack a map with which to find my way home; how often do I try to pursue ill-conceived 'rules' of harmony and voice-leading at the expense of all imagination? I am led through these exercises to experience for the first time, the underlying structural principles on which tonal music is built. Fux assigns functional properties to each interval which dictate the possible subsequent movements, either towards establishing a new dissonance, or resolving an existing dissonance towards consonance and resolution (7 to 6; 4 to 3 for example). To become aware of these rules is, for me, a significant advance over my previous approach or conceptualisation of dissonance. For previously I wandered around in ignorance, reacting to certain superficial properties which I attributed to particular 'chords' which my hands performed rather easily. I was aware that these chords had expressive potential, as they contain dissonant intervals which sound good to my ears (also because they are extracts or distillations of musical moments that are significant to me). However, even while playing these same chords, I was not able to fulfill the expressive potential that I perceived in them: I moved speculatively from one harmony to another, without understanding the principles on which I moved. I could not therefore control either the music or my actions satisfactorily, for the environment was one of continuous change and impermanence. 

This disorganised and unsatisfactory way of proceeding rarely improved, for I faced the same problems in the same way each time I improvised. Though I found temporary (harmonic/countrapuntal) solutions as I went along, I had no framework for understanding how I arrived at these solutions; nor could I perceive if indeed the solutions are good or bad, as the halting, unsatisfactory context in which they are performed contained no clear point of reference against which I could assess the success or failure of my methods.

By absorbing the functions which Fux gives to dissonant intervals, and the rules of progress from one interval to another, I began to understand the power of restraint. In my previous search for expression I tended to amass dissonance; through species counterpoint I learn to honour the resolution of a dissonance before establishing another. It required the exercise of conscious restraint, but this restraint resulted not only in a greater clarity of expression, I sensed too that there was more power, more organisation in the music. It was (for want of a better expression) better music, and certainly more interesting to listen to than my previous unstructured rambling!

It is for this reason that I belive progress in controlling dissonance is a conscious and careful process, which has a gradual effect over time on improvisation. So, to summarise:

1. Wrong notes certainly do exist, in the mind of the improviser and in the perception of the listener, unless the improviser adopts (as is possible) an anarchic approach of uncontrolled dissonance.

2. If, however, the improviser adopts a intuitive approach of controlling dissonance this is a chancy and inexact solution, for the reason that our ears are so attuned to dissonant intervals there is tendency for improvisers to amass dissonance in the search for greater expression.

One final thought: Fux’s rules represent a method for understanding the relationship between dissonance and consonance when using a systme of diatonic tonality. In this sense it serves as a means of control over a particular musical system. By absorbing his fundamental rules one is able to assign functions to certain musical properties and thus perceive the stimulus and the consequences of one’s actions in a stable and secure way; to make (creative and generative) decisions with certainty and, in this way gain control (through understanding) over contrapuntal textures, harmonic movement and so on towards larger sections of musical structure.

The use of this ‘means of control’ through the clear and explicit explanation of conceptual relationships illustrates the need for such mental tools whenever one improvises. That is, there must be a musical system (of constraints) and a means of controlling or manipulating these constraints is the improviser’s actions are to be effectively organised and mentally represented.



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