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Music is, by definition, the creation and resolution of dissonance. Composers understand this intuitively. The problem is that dissonance is different to different people and at different times.

At the most basic level, dissonance is the clashing of overtones as notes are played together, that causes the ear to hear the sound as something that needs to be resolved. Too much clashing, and the listener will find it unmusical. Not enough and he or she will find it bland. Simple, right? Well, no.

People become immune to dissonance. So, what you thought was perfectly tasty when you were six becomes juvenile when you are twenty-something. And what you found utterly cacophonous when you were a teen, may make perfect musical sense as your tastes mature.

It’s also cultural. Asian music and middle-eastern music sounds strange and dissonant to western ears. That’s because there are different cultural tolerances for and definitions of dissonance. Music producers leverage this to create mysterious or edgy moods by borrowing from the music of other cultures. Note the popularity of African drums and Hawaiian ukulele and slack-key guitar in popular music and film scores.

There was a time when any more than three notes played simultaneously would make an unlistenable din. Now, we have seventh, ninth, sixth, and thirteenth chords. As time went by, people became immune to the constructs that Bach and Handel found suitably dissonant. And so, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven had to invent some new ones. This continued right into the 20th century with whole tones, tone rows, serial music, found-sound, and stuff like that.

There is dissonance outside of music too. Spices in food. Colors in fashion. Words on television. Remember George Carlin’s seven words? There is nothing cornier than wearing “edgy” fashion from ten years ago. One great reason classic, timeless style is always a safe purchase.

Big takeaway:

• you need some friction…in music, in design, in advertising, in fiction, in poetry, in food, in anything. A little pain makes you aware you’ve been touched.
• you need to remove the friction…the little bit of pain…the burn of the jalapeno…is given meaning by the resolution of the sour cream.

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