A while back I wrote about the ancient belief that motions of the universe home location of divine beings. Harmony equals benevolence equals the divine, including that “divine” part of humanity. This gave music a cherished place in the seven liberal arts, the ancient designed as preparation for life as a free (liberated) citizen.
Fast forward to Portland, Oregon, a microcosm of what’s going wrong in America today. The phrase that comes to mind is no longer “city of roses” but “civil discord.” Discord: another musical term, the opposite of harmony. If I ask you to think of what characterizes harmony, you might come up with an image of people working cheerfully together toward a common purpose, and if I ask you to picture discord, you may see people opposing each other, that is, pushing violently in opposing directions.
I believe that the use of musical terms to describe civil society is just as apt today as it was in ancient times. Harmony (or “consonance”) arises when two or more notes are played at the same time that sound “good” together, and dissonance arises when they clash. And sounding good is a relative term that has changed over the ages, while clashing can be described in absolute, mathematical terms. One sentence history of western music for the last 700 years: chords that used to be considered dissonant come, one by one, to be considered consonant.
In the 11th century, the only consonant chord was the octave (C to C). The frequencies of two notes an octave apart are in the ratio 2:1 (a unison being 1:1). Next comes the fifth (C to G): 3:2, which was consonant in the 12th century, then the major third (5:4) in the15th. Consonances were the small, whole-number ratios. And so we progress to the 20th century, when composers can use any combination of notes with a clear conscience. (Civil society again: after the trauma of the First World War, dissonance became common, almost universal, in music. People were understandably upset.)
When two notes are separated by a very small difference in frequency, such as C and C-sharp, they are more dissonant. (The most dissonant chord on a standard keyboard is the tritone, F to B, which in the middle ages was called the “devil’s interval.”) And with instruments not limited to the notes of the scale, an unlimited number of dissonances are available. One experimenter used a synthesizer to channel a note into one side of a headset, and another note, differing in only one vibration per second, to the other side. When he put on the headset he became dizzy and nauseated by the combination. Discord can make you physically ill.
And apparently one sound that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck and create a feeling of fear—involuntarily—is the recorded sound of a hive of angry hornets. Sounds like Portland today. Or America?
A time-honored principle of musical composition from Columbus’s time to the First World War was that dissonances could and should be used, but they had to be entered into with care, and they had to be “resolved,” that is, the dissonant notes need to move, not to another dissonance, but to a consonance. If you have a keyboard at your disposal, play a two-note chord consisting of an F and the B above that F. Then resolve it by moving the F down to E and the B up to c. Things come to rest.
Interestingly, the fourteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri, in his great poem “Inferno,” places the “sowers of discord” at the bottom of the pit of hell, as close as possible to Satan and as far as possible from God. They are slashed by demons and torn into two parts, as befitted their crime of tearing society asunder. In the view of this genius, then, the sowing of discord is one of the worst sins a person can possibly commit—mere murder pales by comparison.
Having come to the end of my allotted space, I will not close with my usual cheery “see you there,” either for Hell or Portland.
Let me ask instead: do what you can to resolve the discord.