Fathom Mag

Ode to Dissonance

Somewhere in the imperfection the music still sounds beautiful

Published on:
October 8, 2020
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2 min.
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Last night I found joy in playing an augmented fifth chord, my thumb resting on the black E flat key and my pinky finger extending to B. The tension in the augmented fifth sounds almost ugly, whereas perfect intervals—like the fourth, fifth, and octave—sound bright and pleasant. A fifth chord is perfect, but augment it by just one semitone and it becomes dissonant. I’ve pulled up dozens of chord sheets to play and sing along to, but last night playing “Something to Believe In” by Madison Cunningham was my first time seeing the augmented fifth chord used on purpose. And the unresolved tension sounded beautiful to me. 

I had heard great things about Madison’s debut album Who You Are Now so it got a lot of play time during my commute last fall. The beginning of “Something to Believe In” starts off with a fifth but moves to the augmented fifth, then resolves back to the fifth, and travels back again to the dissonant chord. It’s an unsettling sound. My first several times hearing the song I didn’t love it, yet I was drawn to how different it sounded.

The days when I was discovering Madison Cunningham’s dissonance were also days of struggling to reconcile my faith with the reality that life can be really hard and really unfair. Maybe it was the season I was in—one of unfulfilled longings stretching more years than I could stomach—or the hopeful innocence of my early twenties fading, but I could no longer fathom why God would allow suffering. And I was disturbed. For a while life and faith and the Bible lost their luster. But God led me to read one book, in which I found deep solace—Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, the author, likely Solomon, essentially wrings his hands in agony asking, “What’s the point?” as he laments the meaninglessness and futility of life. I was relieved and surprised to find in the Bible itself that my disillusionment was normal. 

The notes clash, the interval is imperfect, but somewhere in the imperfection the music still sounds beautiful.

Who Are You Now became the soundtrack to my life dissonance. The more I listened, the more I could hear how the dissonance in “Something To Believe In” complemented its complex meaning. In the beginning of the song, Madison sings to someone disappointed with the brokenness of the world looking for something secure to hold on to and offers her love as assurance: “If you need something to believe in / you can believe in my love.” But by the end of the song, her offering of love becomes a question full of desperate yearning: “I’ve needed something to believe in / can I believe in your love?”

This clash of hope both offered and longed for complements Solomon’s vexations and faith in Ecclesiastes. Throughout many chapters in the book, his words groan with despair: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and striving after wind,” but in the end he still puts his trust in God and encourages us to do the same: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

The notes clash, the interval is imperfect, but somewhere in the imperfection the music still sounds beautiful. Along the way, I had fallen in love with Madison’s song and made my way through intense questioning more humbled but still loving God. With my thumb resting on the black E flat key and my pinky finger extending to B, I felt the sweet awareness of beauty found in dissonance. 

Lan-Vy Ngo
Lan-Vy Ngo lives in Falls Church, Virginia. During the day she works at a data analytics company, but recently she has been connecting back to her middle school self and exploring her love for words and writing. She also loves to engage with beauty and meaning through deep conversation, music, and culture. You can connect with her on Twitter where maybe someday she will tweet more.

Cover image by Andrik Langfield.

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