Consonance and Dissonance

Art can be likened to the balance between poles, darkness and light, sound and silence, straight line and a curve, consonance and dissonance. Even in the seemingly random works of Jackson Pollack, such as untitled, the artistic balance and interplay among various competing elements is visible. Musical timbre lies between the a sign wave and white noise; melody lies between a single note and random tones; rhythm between silence and tonal continuity, or maybe silence and cacophony.

Over time and across space, what constitutes a proper balance continues to shift, as evidenced by changing artistic tastes. Sometimes, such as with the change from the Baroque to the Classical period of music, there is a rather distinct simplification in taste–a preference for consonance over dissonance. Within the Baroque and Classical periods themselves, the music becomes increasingly complex and sophisticated. This phenomenon can be seen in modern popular music as well. In the late 1960s, the genre known as Progressive Rock introduced musical elements from other styles, including the aforementioned Baroque period, with compositions by groups such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, etc. becoming increasingly sophisticated, technical, and long. Punk rock evolved as a counter-form in the mid 1970s, with a return to a shorter, simpler style. A somewhat analogous transition between Swing music and early Rock and roll.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note how changing economics and social structure played a hand in the transition from Baroque to Classical and Swing to Rock and roll. In the former case, as nobility played an increasingly important role in musical patronage, as opposed to patronage by the State or Church during the Baroque, necessitated a greater quantity of smaller groups of musicians. In the latter case in America, conscription and wartime economics combined to make touring with a large band impractical. The demand for music exceeded the supply of talent that could perform it, thus necessitating a shift in the product that was delivered. At other times, innovation was driven by a desire to produce a differentiator, a “new” sound or style that would hopefully catch on with the general public. Glenn Miller achieved this, in part, by adopting a unique timbre, by developing a sound based on having a “clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave”. The Sinatra sound, a combination of his unique timbre, phraseology and je ne sais quoi, distinguished him from his peers. Jimi Hendrix, in addition to his unique sound, broke new ground with his musical compositions, securing his place as one of the greatest rock guitarists and composers of all time.

But had Miller, Sinatra or Hendrix lived in the 18th century, their signature sound would not have come to fruition. Although they were all artistically great innovators, they were all products of their environment. I could not imagine Hendrix ‘s work being accepted by any audience prior to the 1960s–the conditions simply did not exist for audiences to assimilate Hendrix’s combination of sound, melody and rhythm. Although Hendrix may be the most extreme example, I think the same holds true of the others, and, in general, the reason why some artists, including painters such as Vincent van Gogh achieve posthumous fame after a life of relative obscurity, is that their work is “ahead of its time”; the audience is not prepared to appreciate that artists particular interplay between consonance and dissonance while they live.

Of course, Hendrix’s sound was simply not possible in the 18th century, so, not just is the social environment important, so too is the technical. The crooners of the 40s and 50s could not have developed their signature sounds had it not been for technical innovations in recording technology, and it is impossible for me to comprehend Isao Tomita without synthesizer technology.

Attempts have been made to explain artistic quality in (usually) mathematical terms. Musical theorist Joseph Schillinger invented the Schillinger system of musical composition, a systematic, mathematical approach to musical composition, and also authored The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, which applies his principles to other art forms. Although Schillinger himself may not be a household name, he advised many top innovators of his era, including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and George Gershwin, the latter writing Porgy and Bess while working with Schillinger, while Miller penned his signature “Moonlight Serenade”. Recently, Jackson Pollock’s work was analyzed and researchers discovered that he exploited “fluid dynamics and the interplay between viscosity and gravity to achieve the effects he wanted”. Similar analyses have been applied to musical compositions.

If innovation is art, then we should be able to see parallel themes. Today, Apple’s iPad has created the tablet computer market, whereas their Newton failed during the 1990s. I believe that this was due to both technological shortcomings (ie: the technology of that era was simply not mature enough to produce a quality user experience), as well as a lack of user readiness. Today’s smartphones were an outgrowth of the standard cell phones that had become ubiquitous gadgets, computers have also penetrated a significant portion of society (compared with the 1990s), and people are comfortable with and eager for the capabilities smartphones offer. Similarly, the software engineering ecosystem has co-evolved to provide a pool of engineering talent that is equally immersed in today’s technology, and can deliver the kinds of tools people want. At the same time, computing power has exploded–the iPad’s CPU clock speed is 50x that of the Newton–enabling the iPad to provide a much richer experience.

In the world of software, we have seen a shift towards early and frequent releases in an attempt to gauge certain key parameters as early in the business-building process as possible. This makes perfect sense, particularly with software because modern release cycles (the time it takes to release a new version of a particular software product) have shrunk significantly over previous generations. But, for products with longer design cycles, is there a way to predict quality before committing to the most expensive bits, that is, using early design artifacts?

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About jeffmershon

Director of Program Management at SiriusXM.
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