Out of Tune on Purpose — Dissonance as an Effect


How many times have you heard a song or piece of music and wondered “what is it about this that makes me listen?”. It could be the great guitar solo, the chord sequence or the melody, but sometimes it’s none of those things. Take a song like “The Poacher” from 1974, by the late Ronnie Lane of (Small) Faces, Slim Chance and Passing Show fame. You can hear it here:


It starts off with a string section with an oboe playing a repeating riff, then the vocals commence, and after a few seconds of listening, you can detect that the vocal pitch lies more than just a few cents below that of the accompanying instruments. It is subtle but very individual, and infuses the song with a certain melancholy mood. This could have happened accidentally, as Ronnie was in his Passing Show period, where he didn’t have much money and could not use miles of tape and a million takes when recording (despite having his own mobile recording studio). Rather, he would use and re-use the same few reels each time he recorded. So this strange sound could have been a syncing or tape speed error. One thing is sure, though: Ronnie wrote hits, and this was one of them. “The Poacher” hit the charts in 1974 and has stuck in my head ever since. Notice that the vocal line starts below pitch and almost always resolves to the pitch of the accompanying instruments by the end of the verse or chorus.

In music, “tension” and “release” are functions of harmony and can be created through varying amounts of dissonance, which, depending on the artist’s mood or vision, can gradually or suddenly resolve into consonance (or vice versa). Dissonance itself can be as simple as playing narrow intervals such as major or minor seconds (think Do and Re sung together or two notes a half-step or semitone apart played together) or, more complexly, two or more frequencies played together that are close to, but not exactly “in-tune” with, notes which would normally form a consonant interval.

In the past, dissonance included many sounds that are today accepted and deemed pleasant and desirable. 400 years ago, only octaves and fifths (think Do and Sol played together) were accepted as being “pleasing to the ear”. All others, if permitted, were required to resolve to unison or fifth degree intervals within the shortest possible time in the measure.

As the centuries passed and the rules of harmony lost their rigidity, intervals once considered dissonant became to be regarded as acceptable and pleasing to the ear. In the 20th century, no other genre has done more to push the boundaries of harmony than jazz. And yet there are those little gems like “The Poacher”, which, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, push harmony into that other subtle, shaded space, creating a mood or effect rather than dissonance for its own sake.

 Though it’s often not obvious, the “blue notes” in modern blues, rock ‘n’roll and jazz (3rd, 5th & 7th tones) are a classic example of dissonance   being used for emotive purposes. In these musical styles, tones are predominantly flattened for a melancholy effect. Our ears have become used to these harmonies, and for many people, hearing them played tastefully in the right context enhances a piece of music immeasurably. Some call them “worried tones”, and the Irish call them “Long Notes”, but however they are perceived, they are an example of stepping outside the conventional 12- tone Western scale without quite breaking the conventional “Western” tonality. This is true even though such tones can be up to 30 cents away from the nearest equally tempered note. To know how notes relate to one another in pitch terms is to better understand how music and harmony work. Inform yourself today with a Peterson tuner!



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© 2013 John Norris for Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc, USA