My thinking since beginning to learn to play piano is coming to include some new thoughts, right now particularly regarding ‘dissonance’ and ‘harmony’.  I’ve never studied music before so this is ALL new to me.  Evidently I have always thought that harmony would sound GOOD and dissonance would sound BAD.  Tired now from my hours of work on a song I am learning I turn to the wonders of the internet for some insights.

In music, a consonance is a harmony, chord, or interval considered stable, as opposed to a dissonance which is considered to be unstable (or temporary, transitional). In more general usage, a consonance is a combination of notes that sound pleasant to most people when played at the same time; dissonance is a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant to most people.

I thought playing piano would be ‘fun’ and ‘relaxing’.  I wasn’t prepared for anxiety to show up all over the place in the musical pieces I am learning to play.  What’s this about???  My entire body reacts to dissonance in the music.  I am having to learn in a very real, tangible way that dissonance is a part of the harmony of life.  If I don’t work this through, I will not be able to play AND enjoy it!  (I am finding that playing the music is VERY different from listening to others play it.)


In my Google search for “piano dissonance harmony” I encountered this interesting piece of writing:

DISSONANT HARMONY – a new principle of musical and social organization

By Dane Rudhyar

We are facing today a vast and radical attempt at world-regeneration.  We have come to one of the critical moments of human evolution when the struggle between particularism and universalism reaches an acute condition; when the destiny of many centuries to come hangs in the balance of our own thinking, imagining and behaving.  There have been many such crises in the past; yet this which we are experiencing today is probably more far-reaching, affecting as it does the whole of the human race in a way not to be paralleled at least in historical times.

The particularistic attitude is earth-born; the universalistic we may call for the time being mind-born, it being understood that by the term mind we mean neither the brain-consciousness nor the intellect (which is but the power to synthesize sense-impressions) but the true principle of spiritual-metaphysical manhood which differentiates altogether Man from the animal and makes of him a super-earthy being.

These two attitudes give birth to two essential types of philosophy, of social order, of art.  Society or any work of art (musical or plastic) is a complex whole made of many parts or units.  Whether these units are human beings or musical tones or geometrical forms does not essentially matter.  The important thing is the type of organization which makes of all these units a whole.”

This piece of writing goes on (please click above on title link for whole article) to say:

However, our present task is essentially to analyze the two basic types of relationship which individuals, social or musical, may enter into….

A relation between two musical units is called an interval.  Intervals are considered as being either consonant or dissonant; consonance and dissonance being as it were two poles.  Absolute consonance is the negation of the interval, thus the unison:  two tones having become one.  Absolute dissonance really does not exist.  No interval is absolutely dissonant; it is only more or less so.  When two tones are sounded, the relation between which cannot be felt by the hearer, a discord is thus produced.  We might say to precise the meaning which we give to these basic terms that a consonance is a relation which can be easily reduced to unity; that a dissonance is a relation the terms of which are constantly pulling apart; that a discord is produced by the absence of any perceived relationship between two units.

The difference between a discord and a dissonance is especially a purely subjective one, a constantly changing one even for a single hearer.  The more developed his power of relating apparently heterogeneous elements, the smaller the field of discords for any particular hearer.  This power increases by mere habit to a considerable degree.  We shall refer to it subsequently as that of identifying opposites; metaphysically it is the power of relating spirit to matter, the essential characteristic of the truly human Soul.

1. A consonance is the product of a relation between two musical units which is natural and easy to apprehend; 2.  Also of a relation which is satisfying and self-fulfilling, thus static.

A dissonance is a field of tension out of which something emanates, what we have called synthetic resonance.  This is really tone-energy, an energy unclassified as yet by modern science, but perhaps akin to what has been called by some odic energy [life force – what I feel in my body as triggered anxiety when I hit it in the music], or perhaps nerve energy under certain conditions. 

At any rate it is power which can be used indifferently in a constructive or in a destructive way…consonance and dissonance are but two poles of the same substance, of SOUND.  The one ever penetrates the other, the one ever becomes the other.  Music is the glorification of both.


The piece of music I am dedicated to learning to read and to play attracts me because of its interplay of dissonance followed by beautiful resolution in consonance.  I am finding as I learn to play music that my PTSD anxiety is triggered powerfully by discord.  If I am going to play music, I need to work up my tolerance for dissonance – in part by understanding how it works, why musicians write it into their music, what the relationship is between consonance and dissonance, and how my anxiety interplays with my ability to both tolerate and to enjoy certain sound combinations.

As a survivor of 18 years of severe child abuse from birth, I have had all the ‘dissonance’ I can handle for a lifetime — or have I?  These troubling anxious spots in the music — I know I respond to them with a HYPER/OVER reaction — too much, too strong, too painful, too uncomfortable.  I remind myself “This is SAFE, Linda!”  Playing music is a perfect medium for healing some of my difficulties with disharmony —

As I learn to hear this piece of music I am working on – note by note, phrase by phrase, section by section — I am learning to experience the WHOLE created by all these separate parts — the ones that sound like they get along and the parts that don’t sound that way!  Fascinating study….

(It strikes me that this is all really about ‘rupture and repair’, the vital ingredients of infant-caregiver safe and secure attachment relationships that build our musical-emotional-social-right brain in the first place — or not in cases of early abuse….)




  1. As I learn this piece, as I become familiar with its ‘life’, its way, its form, its movement through time and space, as I begin to improve my ability to form its sounds with my fingertips, as I find how it moves through valleys and up to and over and down its hills, as I move so haltingly, so newly, so hopefully into the land where this small piece of music resides, I am seeing how just through increased speed of passage the anxiety-laden segments fall away as the music heals itself again and again in combinations of intervals that are simply heavenly.

    I am learning to recognize as I see the dissonant sections appear in the writing on each page exactly where the repair to these ruptures in the fabric of beauty will follow. There is hope in that, hope built right into the song itself. This song, a journey I will follow until I teach myself to fly through its notes, slowing when I wish to so I can savor those combinations of notes that come to enrapture my soul and give me goosebumps they are so heavenly.

  2. Sounds like this could become a “safe” way to experience discord and feel anxiety. Though anxiety is very unpleasant to feel, I think that over time playing piano may actually become healing to you. It reminds me of reading and watching what triggers me~books, TV, movies. Even though I feel horrible, even cry, I seek out those things, partly as a way of feeling without actually being harmed.

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