Example 6. Consonance and dissonance, fifty-minute class

By the end of this class, students should be able to:

10 min. Consonance and dissonance in Western intervals

Begin by explaining the Western European concept of classifying intervals as pleasant (“consonant”) or unpleasant (“dissonant”), without revealing the specific interval classifications. Ask students to listen as the instructor plays each interval in turn on the piano and classify each interval as consonant or dissonant. (Other variations on this activity include playing only harmonic intervals, playing only melodic intervals, asking students to sing intervals melodically, asking students to sing intervals harmonically in pairs, and playing intervals on instruments other than a piano.)

Tally the class responses on the board, and then share the Western European common practice music classifications for both harmonic and melodic intervals.

10 min. Consonance and dissonance as culturally conditioned and contextually determined1

Discuss with students the notion that consonance and dissonance are culturally conditioned, and also contextually determined by the particular piece. Listen to examples of this assertion as a class, and also post sound files to a course website for students to access.

Some possible examples (substitute any piece of music with a perfect fifth):

20 min. Analysis of consonance and dissonance

Assign students to specific examples (either individually or in groups). For each example, ask students to determine whether the perfect fifth in question is consonant or dissonant in the context of the song, and what musical features lead them to that judgement. Students can use their devices to continue listening to their assigned song.

10 min. Revised definition of consonance and dissonance

Regroup as a class. Ask students to share their work and use it to draft a class statement about consonance and dissonance in music. The instructor might choose to connect this to dissonance treatment (e.g., the idea that sevenths must resolve in some styles, but not in others), or to harmonic context (e.g., a tritone as dissonant in a melody, but consonant when included in a dominant seventh chord).