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An Overview of Antonal Music

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 1983 words Published: 18th Sep 2017

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Kenneth Laino

I. What is Atonality?

Unfamiliarity is the basis of atonal music; a musical genre whose foundation deprives the wired human mind’s desire of a tonal resolution. In a sense the whole movement can be seen as anarchical expression. For generations it has been ingrained in our western culture for music to stay in a particular key or to develop the idea of tonality, where music plays at the constant ebb and flow of resolution and tension – yet such principles that seemed inherent to the very existence of enjoyable music are cyclically toyed, abandoned, and reinvented. The modern era was prime for such radical changes in philosophy. In order to avoid an era of resignation, leaps of defiance were stated and claimed to achieve a sense of progress and identity. As such we can view the experiment of atonal music as “… characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments” (Forte 1977, 1). Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center or key, it refuses to conform to a system of tonal hierarchy, where pitches focus on a single, central tone, and instead retorts with mastery of independent function for the creation of new roots- thus atonality is inspired.   

II. Origins: The Development of Impressionism and Expressionism

The early 20th century was a culmination of an artistic endeavors, experimenting in different styles both in the visual and audial mediums. The main proponents explored in this musical era would be the inclusion of impressionism and expressionism. For a brief look into the musical scene of impressionism there was leading figures, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, both of whom were dissuaded by their labels given by critiques, that “imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term employed with the utmost inaccuracy.” An aesthetic and philosophical term borrowed from the parallel, artistic revolution; a vivid analogy to painters who would focus on the audience perception to achieve an overall impression. Simply put, the key goal was to arouse emotion and convey moods, and as such various composers in Western classical music followed suite arriving at the defining characteristic of the entire impressionism movement: “color” or in musical terms, timbre. Displaying landscapes through orchestration, harmonic usage, and texture. Other elements developed included the general use of new chord combinations (that were unresolved such as the 9th, 11ths, 13ths), ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, parallel motions, “extra-musicality”, and relishing on top, the use modes and exotic scales. In order to capture “a sense of detached observation,” the normal syntax is usually disrupted and individual styles are carry through to maintain that integrity of the work’s meaning. Already essential themes to the era including experimentation for the medium’s progress, the destruction of well established systems, expressing the individual, and moving away from the tonal key. As the mostly French focused on Impressionism, the corresponding movement of their rivals, the Germans, are going to focus on music differently; thus Expressionism is in existence. The underlying construct in Expressionism is psychological rather than artistic. With the advent of influential psychoanalysis studies, such as Sigmund Freud, making people think about the reasons why they behave in certain ways, drawn out the more oppressed, twisted side of the human psyche. Expressionism had a dark, intense color and unlike Impressionism – were generally not solely instrumental, in fact operas were a hallmark of these styles in order to reciprocate the story of people’s actions. In the 20th century there is finally variety in the ways of expression. In order to truly create tension or the sense of a person loss, Atonality is an excellent tool to convey that. The music lacks focus and doesn’t have a sense of direction as we’re dependent on patterns and repetition to guide us – thus we move away from a tonal key – and instead builds an exuberant amount of tension in the perspective of possibly someone’s personal strife and the general mental condition. The leaders of this movement would be Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Alban Berg would use structures well-known and prey on them. For example an opera by him, “Wozzeck” is common in it having three-acts labeled as “Exposition, Development, and Catastrophe”. He leads us into the thought of a sonata cycle where the end is a typical tragedy. Staying faithful to tradition, each act has 5 scenes familiar to a balanced classical style. However these characteristics are just for surface appeal – they’re twisted – each act is a set of variations, placing it under new context. It attempts to drive the listener it away a sense of tonality. And he uses Sprechstimme, a compositional technique similar to modern day improvisation where the score for the singer would be specified rhythms but intentionally be left without the notes which created a structured eery sound where the pitches aren’t specified and lost a direction of key, and possibly amplified with the abandonment of lyrics for spoken words. Techniques and styles that were the byproduct of expressionism and impressionism were vital to evolution of atonality in the 20th century split in music.

III. Writing Atonal Music : 12 Tone Technique

After the deaths of Mahler (1911) and Debussy in (1918) the world was open to pushing the limits of western harmonies. In fact a small 20th century split developed between tonal composers, lead by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, saw over a gradual evolution of the tonal system, expanding on musical ambiguity but still remained in the confines of the well-established tonal system. Eventually this process would lead to a point of no return – which “serial” or non-tonal composers would turn to, such as Arnold Schoenberg, whom dove straight to a convulsive transformation of the tonal system to a complete new language of music. Of course disputes of which side truly represented modern music were brought up, Stravinsky almost switching tonality on and off versus Schoenberg who declared a complete break with tonality and symmetric syntactic structures. Yet they shared the motivation; to increase expressive power in music.

Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer and conductor who migrated to America during WWII. During his time, he focused on promoting new music to the world to advance a sense of progress, and thus supported new ideas and impressionist movements in his works. In 1905 he composed “Pelleas and Melisande” a popular story at the time which importantly introduced the first use of a trombone glissando in an art music. Gradually, we sense pleas to escape the chains of tonality, with his development of Quaternary Harmonies (building chords on fourths) in pieces such as “Kammersymphonie” (which means chamber symphony) in 1907 as influenced by the impressionists who would use these quartal chords because it didn’t lead anywhere. Eventually he would have dissonance that never resolve – a lingering tension. In 1909 he would abandon writing key signatures at all! His first piece resembling any form of atonality would truly be his Opus 11. A string quartet with a soprano voice rejecting tonality would sing “Ich fühle Luft von einem anderen Planeten” (“I feel the air of another planet”) And thus breath was finally spoken, which lead to the idea of free atonality (which would not be until his Opus 25, the first use of his 12-tone technique). Atonality at the time seemed to fulfill the condition of progress and continue romantic expression from Mahler and it seemed to be the next logical and inevitable milestone; however, by reaching a dead through the abandonment of all the rules and absolute freedom from constraints made it difficult to listen to. Even with the intuitively brilliant syntax of these works, unfortunately, it was hard for the composer and listener to avoid the innate drive for atonality. The experiment to get away from tonality sadly ended with the burdening sense for a resolution, without a working structure, and without any cues or clues for general memorability. In the end ” if you listened to Atonal Music you would know why it’s never used again.” (Luthye, 2017)

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In order to begin writing atonal music like Schoeneberg, let’s focus on the most basic compositional strategy in writing for the serial method (which is to use all 12 tones all the time but without any tonal relationship). The goal of atonality is to move away from a certain key. Tonality is developed through the repetition notes and thus notes must equally used without a specific relation.

In the Twelve-Tone System or Dodecaphonic Technique you develop a tone row, however unlike Debussy who always stayed with in the key, it must use all 12 tones before it can repeat any of the tones. After writing a tone with 12 different tones the goal is avoid repetition to maintain interest and avoid making that tone row the new tonal center.

Common variations include, a retrograde, playing all notes in the tone row backwards and an inverse, playing all notes in intervals of the opposite direction (notes go equidistant in half-steps but in the opposite direction.) Keep in mind however a tri-tone interval would remain the same as they’re equidistant. From there the music can be simply written with personal variation; with multiple applications such as an inverse-retrograde and retrograde-inverse, variety of rhythms, and having many different tone rows – the possibilities are endless, so get creative!

Atonality takes its roots in being a product of a period of extreme artistic progress. Though its inability to be defined as art, or even appealing lead to its downfall – its experimentation wasn’t in vain. Though not fully used, it showed us the limits of music and expanded musical expression in pure variety; allowing for full control of chromaticism and modulation still seen today in Jazz.


  • Beach, David (ed.). 1983. “Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music”, Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Forte, Allen. 1977. The Structure of Atonal Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02120-2.
  • Kostka, Stefan and Payne, Dorothy (1995). Tonal Harmony. Third Edition. ISBN 0-07-300056-6.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold. 1978. Theory of Harmony, translated by Roy Carter. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Zimmerman, Daniel J. 2002. “Families without Clusters in the Early Works of Sergei Prokofiev”. PhD diss. Chicago: University of Chicago.


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