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Atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies, which characterizes the sound of classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Not only does it not conform to the common practice of this particular period, but it is noticeably divorced from the acoustical underpinnings of music going back as far as the scale systems of ancient Greece. This separation of traditional meaning to be found in melodic motifs throughout history, have left purely atonal music generally bereft of common emotional and spiritual meaning. Atonality usually describes compositions written from about 1923 to the present day, where the hierarchy of tonal centers, in some cases, may not be used as the primary way to organize a work. Tonal centers gradually replaced modal organization starting in the 1500s and culminated with the establishment of the major-minor key system in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

The most prominent school to compose in this manner was the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. However, composers such as Josef Matthias Hauer, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, and others wrote music that is described as atonal, and many traditional composers “flirted with atonality,” in the words of Leonard Bernstein.


History of atonality

While music without a tonal center had been written previously, for example Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité of 1885, it is with the 20th century that the term atonality began to be applied to pieces, particularly those written by Arnold Schönberg and The Second Viennese School.

Their music arose from what was described as the crisis of tonality in the late 19th century and early 20th century in classical music. It was described by composer Ferruccio Busoni as the “exhaustion of the major-minor key system,” and by Schönberg as the “inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others.” The first phase is often described as "free atonality" or "free chromaticism" and involved the conscious attempt to avoid traditional diatonic harmony. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck (1917-1922) by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schönberg. The second period, begun after World War I, was exemplified by attempts to create a systematic means of composing without tonality, most famously the method of composing with 12 tones or the twelve-tone technique. This period included Berg's Lulu and Lyric Suite, Schönberg's Piano Concerto, his opera Jacob's Ladder and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his final string quartets. Schönberg was the major innovator of the system, but his student, Anton Webern, then began linking dynamics and tone color to the primary row as well, making the row not only of notes but other aspects of music as well. This, combined with the parameterization of Olivier Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism.

Atonality emerged as a pejorative term to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as "Bolshevik" and labeled as degenerate (Entartete Musik) along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime. Many composers had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse after World War II.

In the years that followed, atonality represented a challenge to many composers—even those who wrote more tonal music were influenced by it. The Second Viennese School, and particularly 12-tone composition, was taken by avant-garde composers in the 1950s to be the foundation of the New Music, and led to serialism and other forms of musical experimentation. Prominent post-World War II composers in this tradition are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Milton Babbitt. Many composers wrote atonal music after the war, even if before they had pursued other styles, including Elliott Carter and Witold Lutosławski. After Schönberg's death, Igor Stravinsky began to write music with a mixture of serial and tonal elements. During this time, the chord progressions or successions designed to avoid a tonal center were explored and named, creating a vocabulary described as musical set theory focusing on pitch classes and pitch sets.

Atonal music continues to be composed, and many atonal composers of the late 20th century are still alive and active. However, atonal composition began to fade in the 1960s—where, on one hand, aleatoric music and electronic music demanded more and more attention and, on the other hand, musicians influenced by Eastern mysticism, modality, and Minimalism began writing music based on ostinato patterns.

Controversy over the term itself

The use of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Schönberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "atonal" meant "without tone." For some, the term continues to carry negative connotations. A popular joke among musicians posits that "The two great errors of the 20th century were atonality and Marxism."

"Atonal" developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Attempts to solve these problems by using terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," and "without tonal center" instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.

Composer Anton von Webern, musicologist Robert Fink, and others have asserted that all music is perceived as having a tonal center. Others have argued that the avoidance of a tonal center produces more sophisticated music, which requires greater ability to appreciate, for example, Schönberg in his article on 12-tone composing. Influential critic Theodor Adorno argued, however, that one could express anything from tragedy to a smirk in atonality, provided one had compositional ability.

Others remarked that atonal music could not express the wide range of human emotions in an appropriate way. One could translate Shakespeare's plays into hundreds of different languages, but one could not translate a Beethoven symphony into an atonal equivalent. The language of music was not as arbitrary as the normal languages. Atonality was even described as "not music" or "incomprehensible."

In the historical view, however, neither of the extremes of prediction have come about: atonality has neither replaced tonality, nor has it disappeared. There is, however, much agreement amongst many composers that atonal systems in the hands of less-talented composers will still sound weak expressively, and composers with a genuine tonal gift are capable of writing exquisite works using twelve-tone methods. Serialism itself has been taken up by tonal composers as a modest replacement for the common practice tendencies of certain traditional forms to conform to certain tonal expectations.

The minimalist movement in music was an obvious reaction to the stilted academicism of university composition departments, each striving to out-do the other with all manner of freakishness and pseudo-science regarding the creative future of western music. Examples of these composers would be Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Coolidge Adams. The advent of postmodern classicism has proven a return to tonal traditions (far from exhausted), and is represented by the American traditionalist composer, John Kenneth Graham.

Composing atonal music

Setting out to compose atonal music may seem complicated because of both the vagueness and generality of the term. Additionally George Perle (1962) explains that, "the 'free' atonality that preceded dodecaphony precludes by definition the possibility of self-consistent, generally applicable compositional procedures." (p.9) However, he provides one example as a way to compose atonal pieces, a pre-twelve tone technique piece by Anton Webern, which rigorously avoids anything that suggests tonality, to choose pitches that do not imply tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was not allowed is required and what was required is not allowed. This is what was done by Charles Seeger in his explanation of dissonant counterpoint, which is a way to write atonal counterpoint.

Further, he agrees with Oster and Katz that, "the abandonment of the concept of a root-generator of the individual chord is a radical development that renders futile any attempt at a systematic formulation of chord structure and progression in atonal music along the lines of traditional harmonic theory." (p.31) Atonal compositional techniques and results "are not reducible to a set of foundational assumptions in terms of which the compositions that are collectively designated by the expression 'atonal music' can be said to represent 'a system' of composition." (p.1)

Perle also points out that structural coherence is most often achieved through operations on intervallic cells. A cell "may operate as a kind of microcosmic set of fixed intervallic content, statable either as a chord or as a melodic figure or as a combination of both. Its components may be fixed with regard to order, in which event it may be employed, like the twelve-tone set, in its literal transformations... Individual tones may function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells." (pp.9-10)

Audio examples of the role of dissonance and tonality claimed as part of our own physiological make-up (the ear) may be heard in the following links (which also are examples of the interaction and effect of consonance and dissonance upon each other). Click here The effect of context on dissonance, and here: The role of harmony in music. An experiment easily done on any piano can be found here: Experiment. Scroll down or search page for "experiment." In the content of those audios and critical arguments, a reader or composer may judge whether these perceptions are learned only by conditioning or are physically based.

Criticism of atonal music

Famous Swiss conductor, composer and musical philospher Ernest Ansermet was the greatest critic of atonal music. He writes in his massive book "Les fondemments de la musique dans la conscience humaine" that Beethoven was unique in presenting the eternal ideal of the hero, his struggling and victory (5. symphony) and the typical Western universal ideal of a community of all social and loving humans (9. symphony) so forcefully and clearly. The classical musical language was a precondition for that with its clear, harmonious structures. Tonality based on relatively simple interval relations is absolutely necessary in Ansermet's opinion. So by the incomprehensible modern atonal music choosing interval relations randomly, such an impact, ethos and catharsis could never be reached in the audience.

Also: serialism


  1. Beach, David, ed. (1983). "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music", Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  2. Fink, Bob (2004). "The false science of atonalist theories," Crosscurrents Journal... No. 196, Winter 2004.
  3. Katz, Adele T. (1945/1972). Challenge to Musical Traditions: A New Concept of Tonality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc./New York: Da Capo.
  4. Oster, Ernst (1960). "Re: A New Concept of Tonality (?)", Journal of Music Theory 4, p.96.
  5. Perle, George (1962). Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press. ISBN 0520074300.

External links

Modernism (music): 20th century classical music - Atonality - Jazz
Modern art - Impressionism - Expressionism - Surrealism

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

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