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Atonality vs Dissonance

 Atonality and dissonance are often linked in listeners’ minds, but they’re not the same thing. Dissonance, from the Latin words for “sounding” and “apart,” is the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes to produce a clashing, or unpleasant effect. Its opposite is consonance, a pleasing sound, a “sounding together.”

Atonality is simply the absence of tonality, tonality being the musical system based on major and minor keys. Now it’s true that atonal music often includes lots of harsh dissonance… but so too does tonal music, the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The difference is that in tonal music, dissonance doesn’t last: dissonances are considered “unstable” harmonies that must be “resolved” to consonance. And indeed, the crucial dynamic of tonal music is that dissonance creates dramatic tension, and consonance satisfies our longing for the resolution of that tension.

A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.