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Quora Answer : With music, do you think there should be a balance between dissonance and consonance, or is this purely personal taste?

Mar 12, 2020

Sort of.

I think there has to be a balance between familiarity and surprise.

And obviously consonance and dissonance are one way to embody familiarity and surprise, but are not the only ways.

You might get away with very obvious and familiar consonance, and do the surprise differently. Perhaps with odd instruments or timbres or rhythms or structures etc. That's basically what a lot of popular music does : very familiar harmony and melody, new and surprising textures and rhythms. That way of balancing surprise and familiarity can work just fine. At the same time there are examples of, say, electronic dance music that manage to give you fairly dissonant atonal sounds but with a very familiar rhythmic pulse.

My view of, for want of a better word, the "aesthetic realism" debate is that aesthetic goodness is a real, objective thing. But that it's a "relational" property.

Think of it like being a moon. It's objectively true that our moon IS a "moon". But it's only a moon because it's in orbit around the Earth. If the Earth disappeared, our moon would stop being a moon and become either a planet or a wandering asteroid of some sort. That is, the property of "being a moon" is relational. It depends on the Earth, not just itself.

Similarly, I think that "good music" is objectively good. Not simply "personal taste" or a question of aesthetic relativism. BUT it is a relational property that depends on how the audience (or humanity at large) receive it. Its goodness depends on how an audience of human listeners engages and responds to it. And partly, that is, through how it manages to sufficiently surprise its listeners with unfamiliarity, while satisfying them with familiarity, at that particular point in musical history.

The same musical feature can be a challenging novelty at one point in history. An example of good taste in embodying just the right amount of spicy unfamiliarity at a later date. And a meaningless and empty cliche after it has become too familiar through over-usage.

So music depends on engaging the audience at the time it confronts them.

If you present too much familiarity and not enough surprise, the audience will simply not find it interesting enough to listen to. If you present too much surprise and not enough familiarity it will be just "noise" in the mathematical sense. You need to balance those two. And hook the human listeners in the right way for your music to be "good".

But what is the right way? It's not mere popularity. Although long term popularity is necessarily part of it.

There's no way music is good if no-one wants to listen to it now or ever in the future.

At the same time, if you're massively fashionable at one moment, but within a generation no-one bothers to remember you and no-one was inspired by you to do their own new things, then I think we can safely say you weren't good either.

Good music doesn't have to be mega popular. It can be an underground cult. But it has to have some passionate fans and supporters who keep the flame alive over a longer period of time.

If your music manages, through its balance of surprise and familiarity to relate to humanity that way, then it is doing its job, and is "objectively good". If it doesn't, I'm happy to say that it's objectively not good. Even bad.

Consonance and dissonance are simply features that can contribute to that overall tapestry of surprise and familiarity for the audience at this time. That's the balance you need to get right.

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