Dissonance and Linear Structures

I. General

Tonal music is multi-layered. As we learn how to play a piece, we may move from

(1) getting the individual notes right to

(2) phrasing small groups of notes together to

(3) thinking about phrases and cadences to

(4) thinking about ways that phrases group together to form periods or sections to

(5) thinking about still larger spans of musical time and how they relate to one another to

(6) thinking about a piece of music as a whole.

We may also learn a piece by moving in the opposite direction, from consideration of the piece as a whole to consideration of smaller and smaller details. Most of us most of the time probably learn most music by combining "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches.

It follows from this that some notes and groups of notes are structurally more essential than others: we understand less essential notes in terms of the more essential notes around them.

Dissonant notes are conceptually dependent on the consonant notes from which they are derived; we understand a dissonant note in terms of the consonant notes around it.


II. A primer on dissonance and linear structures

The following discussion of dissonance first considers the process by which simple triadic structures are elaborated by the addition of consonant passing tones and neighbor notes to create simple tonal melodies. Then it considers the analogous process by which surface elaboration further embellishes such simple melodies. This latter process is what we call "dissonance" on an everyday basis. It is actually only the most foreground manifestation of a process that goes on at all levels of musical form.

Dissonance I: The Creation of Simple Tonal Melodies

A Special Note on Consonant Passing Tones and Neighbor Notes

Dissonance II: Non-Chord Tones

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