It’s a scary moment most of us have experienced. You’re in the car, and it’s the perfect opportunity to show your friend that new song. You’ve been both listening to a lot of hiphop together for a while, and you’ve found something that’s just on the edge and it feels so good. So you press play, and hold your breath, watching their expression closely for any sign of the same joy you felt when you first heard it. They crumple their face up just slightly, and say, “It’s weird” or “meh, I prefer their old stuff.” Or even worse, they might say nothing at all.
That feeling of deflation and disappointment isn’t necessarily a new experience. You’ve maybe felt it when your mom’s classic recipe is “updated”, and while healthier, has come at the cost of taste and nostalgia. Perhaps it was when the second season of that show that completely flopped and ruined the show (“Heroes”, anyone?). Either way, you can empathize with your friend, but it also doesn’t make any sense how they could not like it.
The feeling sucks, and losing a friend because he doesn’t understand Kanye’s new lyrics to Lift Yourself (“poopity scoop poop”) isn’t always ideal. However, this is the very process that constitutes the social experience of music, and what links music and culture so closely. This process of engaging with dissonance in music is the means that establishes the parameters of genres, and is extraordinarily critical to music and their associated social scenes.
Hang in there with me. These ideas were generated and developed by my good friend, Richard Chowenhill, who is a doctoral student of composition and performance at Brandeis University in Boston, and he’s onto something. Let’s establish a couple of concepts first.
Consonance and dissonance are binary terms that are defined by each other, and only when contextualized. Consonance, basically, is any sound that is “pleasing”. In the West, we have been acculturated to the 12-note scale and hearing 3rd, 4ths and 5th intervals as “pleasing”. In contrast, 2nds and 6ths are heard as unpleasant. For those of you who are less technically inclined, imagine the sound of any sound you like (birds chirping, wind in trees, Morgan Freeman’s voice), and then imagine sounds you don’t like (sawing concrete, nails on chalkboard, small dogs yapping). That’s consonance and dissonance, respectively. Yes, it’s that subjective of a definition, and it has to be.
Next, let’s establish some basics when I’m referring to culture. I’m using a definition of culture that represents it as fluid, shared knowledges that are constituted by the people that both engage with them, and resist them. And within any “culture”, there are millions of micro-cultures that continue to constitute each other. For instance, American culture can be spoken about broadly, but also loses its meaning when you stay within the meta-narratives. You HAVE to get specific, and drill down. So while we are talking about American culture, it’s more helpful to whittle down to California culture, to San Diego, and then the various intersecting threads. Like being a border city, North-Mexican/Tijuana culture, surf culture, whatever you would call East County culture, etc.
As you start to explore the history of various genres, you start to notice that dissonance is the defining feature of any genre, and that the path to “niche” or “fringe” genres (Finnish death metal, free jazz, trip-hop as examples) is laid by the breadcrumbs of increasingly dissonant features. In my own life, growing up as the son of Iranian immigrants, I was mostly exposed to Persian music and Disney songs growing up. Disney is the perfect representation of consonant, European-style classical music. Once I hit high school, I discovered “classic rock” and found myself gravitating towards Led Zepellin, The Doors, and Black Sabbath. This was the consonance at the time to my lived experience. This wasn’t by accident of course. I grew up in South Orange County, where the majority of my peers were White, middle-to-upper class folks whose parents grew up during the 60s and 70s. Social and geographic context matters! I then found myself increasingly listening to Black Sabbath, until a friend of mine introduced me to Iron Maiden and Pantera. This laid the engagement and familiarity with fast paced drums and distorted guitar sounds. I then was introduced to hardcore music, as a result of being in the South OC area. This gave me exposure to, and created my love for screaming, combined with the fast paced instrumentals. Long story short, the bricks were being laid to the road of death metal, where I eventually found myself in company with Lamb of God, Children of Bodom, Opeth, and various other death/thrash metal bands. As you can imagine, I found myself in a company of folks who were in community with each other as a result of this dissonance. We wore black, had long hair, and loved to mosh at shows. Nobody spoke these things overtly, they were part of becoming acculturated.
People don’t often find themselves in the middle of these subgenres by accident. There is a very nuanced development of being exposed to dissonance, and the dissonance becoming consonance. Conversely, there is the pain of when the dissonance becomes consonance. Remember AFI? I was obsessed with them; they were the grimey punk band that constituted my youth. However, Decemberunderground and on, they found themselves smack-dab in the middle of pop-punk, and to me, the consonance that I was fighting with my music. Think about Fight Club, when a movement is started with intention, and the movement expands beyond the control of the “creators”. Such is culture! Such is dissonance and consonance.
The reason I’m sharing about this is two-fold. On one hand, I’m interested in musicians attending to this feature of music with pride, and with less hesitation. I’ve had the experience of playing with musicians who are turned off by something sounding “weird”, or not “in line” with a pre-established idea of what genre they want to be playing. This is the death of generative creativity. I believe this intention is supportive of feeling free to explore in our music. Secondly, it removes the parameters of what genres need to be and are, and allows for a fluid and complex understanding of how music and culture develop. I think this creates an insulation for when we get that negative feedback, which we are all bound to get, about our music.
This last piece is most visible currently in the hip-hop community and their engagement with trap music. Go on any boom-bap forum or chat with old hip-hop heads, and they’ll tell you that “hip-hop isn’t how it used to be”, and it’s “disconnected from its roots”. While they’re completely right, it’s also assigning a needless value judgment to a natural and wonderful feature of music, which is its fluid development and reflection of its cultural location. A great example of this is when John Coltrane started playing free jazz, and began exploring jazz music beyond the confines of bebop, which had been absorbed by White producers who were interested in the money more than the music. (capitalism and consonance are best friends). Coltrane was derided for this switch, and confused many critics who wondered why such a “talented” musician would create such “talentless” music.
Consonance isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s critical. Otherwise, we could stand in the middle of a construction yard and be pleased by the noise (which I’m sure some people are). Don’t be the critic in your band. Don’t be the person who promotes only consonance.