What is Atonal Music?

What is Atonal Music?

Have you ever heard a piece of music that sounded particularly otherworldly?

If so, then there is a chance that this was an "atonal" composition.

Here are some examples of famous atonal pieces:

  • Samuel Barber's Nocturne, Opus 33
  • Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung
  • Bela Bartok's Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs
  • Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité
  • Edgard Varese's Arcana

How do you know that a composition is atonal?

Usually, experts say that any piece may be described as atonal when it does not have an obvious tonal center. This is contrary to much of western music, which typically is described as "tonal."

A piece that is tonal has a triadic harmonic structure and a clear tonal center. The triad in music is a term for a collection of three notes that are stacked in thirds.

A work is atonal when it does not use such a structure. Some composers create a mathematical or other structure instead. Because of this alternative structure, some listeners may not find this music appealing. This is due to the missing tonal hierarchy and the use of dissonant chords.

Where Did Atonal Music Originate?

Composer Arnold Schoenberg generally is credited as being the first composer to make most of his pieces atonal. However, he was not the first to eschew a tonal center. Schoenberg was working in the early twentieth century, but Franz Liszt composed his Bagatelle sans tonalité in 1885.

However, Schoenberg is the first to have written a piece of music based on the twelve-tone method. Also called twelve-tone serialism, this technique emerged in the aftermath of World War I.

In the period between about 1912 to 1922, Schoenberg searched for a new composition method. He wanted to find a new type of musical structure that would effectively replace the strict reliance on tonality that had chiefly been used up to that point.

According to Schoenberg, tonality was simply being stretched too thin and distorted to such a degree that is was no longer a unifying principle of western music. Instead of a main point of focus that relied on just one or two tones for a whole composition, Schoenberg decided that it made sense to use all 12 tones.

Schoenberg theorized that with this composition structure, there would be no predominate notes to act as focal points. He also wanted to do away with any hierarchy that might be assigned to certain tones.

According to the new structure, each composition would use a different collection of 12 tones. This would not be labeled a theme as Schoenberg wanted to do away with a theme that gives a piece a certain rhythm, volume or shape. Instead, he felt that the 12 tones were a backbone that would permeate the composition.

Some people called the resulting pieces unmusical, but Schoenberg persisted, eventually influencing some of the most famous composers of the 20th century.

Among them were Anton von Webern, whose Passacaglia for Orchestra is particularly famous, and Alban Berg, who is perhaps best known for his operas Lulu and Wozzeck. Other composers who experimented with the twelve-tone method include:

  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Hans Werner Henze
  • Roger Sessions
  • Ernst Krenek

Let's Talk About Functional Tonality

When musicians or composers refer to a "tone," they usually are talking about a musical pitch that may be sung or played on an instrument. The concept of "functional tonality" then is the idea that the various tones work together.

In western music, this is an important idea as it is essentially the foundation for much of composition throughout the centuries.

For much of that time, composers and musicians have relied upon scales or keys to organize the tones they used. Twelve tones are recognized and considered musical in the western world. Traditionally, composers felt that it was just too much to try to work with all 12 tones in the same piece. Accordingly, keys or scales were used to organize the available tones into manageable subsets. Examples of these include scales like D minor and C major. Currently, more than 200 keys or scales are regularly used in western music.

If you are learning to play an instrument, you quickly will discover that a certain note is the "home" or "anchor" for any piece that you are playing. This single note stands out as being the most important one in the composition. In fact, it's pretty common for many songs to start and end on this "home" note.

Leaving Behind Functional Tonality

When you listen to a catchy pop song on the radio or a classical composition from the 18th century, then you are probably going to hear some excellent examples of functional tonality and reliance on a "home" note in each piece.

This is a really critical building block for much of music until the end of World War I. Then, more and more composers began to look for ways to leave behind functional tonality. Why did they want to do away with this basic building block of western music?

The answer probably lies in history. Both World War I and World War II were times of considerable upheaval. This was especially true for people in Europe. In many cases, their homes and livelihoods had been destroyed. They had lost loved ones, and they were starving. Their old way of life had simply disappeared. Many of them were homeless and had few prospects.

Composers and musicians of the era led lives that were devastated by war and upheaval. Their traditional lifestyles were gone, as were many of the symphonies, orchestras and chamber groups with which they had worked.

With so little to tie them to the old way of doing things, it was the perfect time to break some rules and find new ways of composing and playing music.

Think of it this way. By banishing the home note, many composers were expressing their anguish at being homeless themselves or seeing so many of their countrymen homeless as well. Without a home note, composers were free to explore more fluid relationships between the notes, which might even be randomized, to the point that there may be no discernible relationship between the notes.

The result is music that is filled with unpredictable sounds that may even come across as being disjointed. This means that listeners are asked to let go of many of the traditional expectations that they might bring to a performance.

Try Listening to Some Atonal Music

Are you ready to listen to some groundbreaking atonal pieces? Then try Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. At first, the dissonance may bother you, but many people find an unusual beauty in the often unexpected sounds.

Schoenberg considered this piece to be a melodrama. It was based on nearly two dozen poems by Albert Giraud. Schoenberg completed Pierrot Lunaire in 1912, writing it for a small ensemble that included a clarinet, flute, piano, cello and violin as well as a vocalist.

Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is another atonal work that many listeners have found challenging over the decades. The piece was written for a ballet and concert in 1913. Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performed the ballet, with Vaslav Nijinsky serving as choreographer.

With both the music and the dancing being considered avant-garde at the time, a veritable sensation ensued among the people of Paris. In fact, many audience members who attended the inaugural performance referred to the scene as a "near-riot."

Today, The Rite of Spring frequently is performed in concert without the ballet. Many believe that the piece's experimental use of dissonance, tonality, rhythm and meter make it one of the most influential pieces of 20th century composition.

Are You Ready for More?

Atonal music is not everyone's cup of tea, and that is perfectly all right. Exposing yourself to new musical concepts and genres is always a good idea as you never know what might appeal to you until you delve into it.

At Prodigies, we believe in learning throughout our lifetimes. We encourage parents and teachers to find fun and creative ways to help kids as young as infants and toddlers to experience music. Perhaps that just means turning up the radio and dancing along to the music.

However, when you feel that your kids would benefit from a more structured introduction to music, come to Prodigies. Our fast, fun and accessible video lessons create a solid foundation of music knowledge for students of all ages.

In fact, although our lessons and supporting materials are designed for little ones, you might be surprised and delighted by how much you learn as well. Take a musical journey today with your kids using Prodigies as your guide.


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