Emancipation of the dissonance  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The emancipation of the dissonance was a concept or goal put forth by Arnold Schoenberg (composer of atonal music and the inventor of the twelve tone technique) and others, including his pupil Anton Webern. It may be described as a metanarrative to justify atonality. Jim Samson (1977, 146–47) describes: "As the ear becomes acclimatized to a sonority within a particular context, the sonority will gradually become 'emancipated' from that context and seek a new one. The emancipation of the dominant-quality dissonances has followed this pattern, with the dominant seventh developing in status from a contrapuntal note in the sixteenth century to a quasi-consonant harmonic note in the early nineteenth. By the later nineteenth century the higher numbered dominant-quality dissonances had also achieved harmonic status, with resolution delayed or omitted completely. The greater autonomy of the dominant-quality dissonance contributed significantly to the weakening of traditional tonal function within a purely diatonic context."

Composers such as Charles Ives, Dane Rudhyar, even Duke Ellington and Lou Harrison, connected the emancipation of the dissonance with the emancipation of society and humanity. Michael Broyles calls Ives tone-cluster-rich song "Majority" as "an incantation, a mystical statement of belief in the masses or the people" (Broyles 1996, 125). Duke Ellington, after playing some of his pieces for a journalist, said "That's the Negro's life ... Hear that chord! Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part" (Ellingon 1993, 150). Lou Harrison described Carl Ruggles's counterpoint as "a community of singing lines, living a life of its own, . . . careful not to get ahead or behind in its rhythmic cooperation with the others" (Harrison 1946, 8). Rudhyar gave the subtitle "A New Principle of Musical and Social Organization" to his book Dissonant Harmony, writing, "Dissonant music is thus the music of true and spiritual Democracy; the music of universal brotherhoods; music of Free Souls, not of personalities. It abolishes tonalities, exactly as the real Buddhistic Reformation abolished castes into the Brotherhood of Monks; for Buddhism is nothing but spiritual Democracy" (Rudhyar 1928, 10–11).

Just as the harmonic series was and is used as a justification for consonance, such as by Rameau, among others,Template:Fact the harmonic series is often used as physical or psychoacoustic justification for the gradual emancipation of intervals and chords found further and further up the harmonic series over time, such as is argued by Henry Cowell in defense of his tone clusters.Template:Fact Some argue further that they are not dissonances, but consonances higher up the harmonic series and thus more complex.Template:Fact Chailley (1951, 12) gives the following diagram, a specific timeline he proposes:

Image:Chailley harmonic series emancipationt.PNG

1910, the Emancipation of Dissonance is a book by Thomas J. Harrison which uses Schoenberg's 'revolution' to trace other movements in the arts around that time.


  • Broyles, Michael. 1996. "Charles Ives and the American Democratic Tradition", in Charles Ives and His World, ed. J. Peter Burkholder. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Chailley, Jacques. 1951. Traité historique d'analysis musicale. Paris: Leduc.
  • Ellington, Duke 1993. "Interview in Los Angeles: On Jump for Joy, Opera, and Dissonance as a 'Way of Life,'" reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker, 150. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Harrison, Lou. 1946. About Carl Ruggles. Yonkers, N.Y.: Oscar Baradinsky at the Alicat Bookshop.
  • Harrison, Thomas J. 1996. 1910, the Emancipation of Dissonance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate. ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
  • Oja, Carol J. 1999. "Dane Rudhyar's Vision of American Dissonance." American Music (Summer): [pages?].
  • Rudhyar, Dane. 1928. Dissonant Harmony: A New Principle of Musical and Social Organization. Carmel, California: Hamsa Publications.
  • Samson, Jim. 1977. Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-02193-9.

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