I’ve been thinking again of my idea of a master flow for all art—the idea that all art is basically about presenting tension and then resolving it with calm. (Well, not all the time—the final jump scare in a lot of horror movies leaves the viewer with unresolved tension.)
Maybe tension is not the best word to use here though. Maybe we really mean questions. For example, when a zombie shuffles onscreen in a movie, he brings with him questions. What’s the zombie going to do? Is he going to eat our protagonists? When the zombie is beheaded, those questions go away; the problem is solved.
In storytelling the questions are easy to see. But what about music or other forms of art?
In music, perhaps we need to think not in terms of questions but of patterns. When we have a predictable pattern we are confident in what’s going on. When we have unpredictable patterns we are not. So what’s a predictable musical pattern? A steady beat is an obvious example. If we can tap along with it we are predicting the next beat and are rewarded when we tap in time. If a beat is unsteady we don’t really like it. And there are at least two kinds of unsteady beats: beats that are unsteady because the person performing sucks (which we find frustrating and amateurish) and beats that seem deliberately askew, as in the music for horror films. For this second kind we feel like we’re being deliberately foiled, there’s something aggressive happening. We feel under attack. (Granted, these sensations are all pretty subconscious.)
Volume is another way music can offer patterns. If a song is going along at a certain volume, the volume itself is a kind of pattern. If the song suddenly gets loud (as certain classical pieces do) the tension goes up. Whoa, I didn’t see that coming, we say.
Musical harmony (two or more notes played at once) also offers predictable and unpredictable patterns. In harmony you have what’s called consonance (roughly speaking: pleasant sounds) and dissonance (ugly sounds.) Each sound is of course made up of wave forms of vibrating air. The wave forms of consonant notes match each other pretty well; their peaks and valleys basically line up with each other. Not so with dissonant notes. Check out this description of a wave form of two dissonant notes (The graph can be found at the “Musical Beats and Intervals” section at the link.)
Observe (look carefully) that the pattern of the resultant is neither periodic nor repeating (at least not in the short sample of time that is shown). The message is clear: if two sound waves that have no simple mathematical relationship between their frequencies interfere to produce a wave, the result will be an irregular and non-repeating pattern. This tends to be displeasing to the ear.
Of course, we don’t think: “Wow, those wave forms are out of synch.” We just think, “That sounds weird.”
There’s an added component here. Psychologists will tell you that some people are novelty seekers, while others are more conservative. Are novelty seekers more accepting of dissonant or less patterned (rhythmically, volume-wise etc) music (modern classical, jazz, some heavy metal, industrial)? I dunno… maybe… it wouldn’t surprise me.
Related: another post of mine on musical dissonance.