Forgiving Dissonance

We can’t help but be aware of the tension that fills our world and puts us all on edge these days.  The divisions among us seem to have never been clearer – some would argue as much so as in the days leading to the Civil War.  The recent political posturing on Capitol Hill is but one example of the dissonance in our world.

I deal with dissonance a lot in my line of work.  Musically, dissonance is when two or more notes seem to clash.  Tension is created in the music and is sometimes resolved into beautiful harmony, but sometimes it isn’t.  Some pieces even end with a question mark of unresolved disharmony.  I encourage choirs to lean into a dissonance and enjoy those moments of tension, because that makes the more acceptable harmonies all the more blissful.  And when the dissonance doesn’t resolve, it leaves us feeling unsettled, but alert to future possibilities of resolution…or perhaps that much more comfortable with a lack of resolution?

Words that a well-known writer on religion had given me at a particularly troublesome time in my life ring in my head quite frequently.  When I asked him what I should do when someone wouldn’t forgive me for something I had done he advised me to forgive that person for not forgiving me.  As much as any of us are able to control our lives, this advice allowed me to live with a dissonance in my life – one that I had thought would remain unresolved. I became comfortable with a lack of resolution and now, many years later, the dissonance is still there, but is one that makes me all the more aware of harmony elsewhere in my life.  

Twentieth century music became rather famously dissonant, didn’t it!  Harmonic boundaries stretched in every imaginable direction, but tension was hardly new in the 20th century of course.  Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and many of his contemporaries took special delight in allowing “cross-relations” to color their music.  In his O nata lux the temporary cloudiness of dissonance, especially near the end, only serves to highlight the music’s luminosity.  Would life be always so.

This entry was posted in Sonya Subbayya Sutton and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Forgiving Dissonance

  1. Mach200Fly says:

    I really got a lot out of this post. Musically, I often do enjoy moments of dissonance, but probably more often than not, I look forward to resolving into harmony. What I never really thought about before, though, is learning to live with and accept dissonance in our personal lives. It always feels like unresolved conflict is SUPPOSED to be resolved, someway, somehow. Learning to live with lack of resolution in some areas of our lives, and learning to forgive the other person for not forgiving us, seems like a mighty task! But I love your point that it can make the harmonies in our lives all the more noticeable. Thanks for this lesson.


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