Explain atonality slowly, please

I’ve tried reading about this, but not had much luck. I’ve tried listening, but I can’t figure out what characteristics set apart tonal from atonal music.

Let me say what I know, or think I know, and the music experts here can take it from there.

First of all, music theory articles haven’t helped. They read like post-modern literary analysis: either they are written to obfuscate more than illuminate, or they have been written with a jargon that the writer assumes the reader knows and understands. Hopefully, there’s a way that a former 2nd Trumpet in high-school can understand.

I’ve listened to Schoenberg and seen a ballet scored by Philip Glass. I’d call them both modernistic, but I don’t see anything else in common. Schoenberg seems dissonant to me; I assume that would be what happens when tones are put together into chords in ways I’m not used to hearing? Glass had none of that harshness, however; it seemed more a very distant cousin to Tubular Bells.

So, music geniuses, want to give Atonality 101 a shot?

well, if no one else has stepped in, I’ll be back after rehearsal for an in-depth examination of the subject.

for now, tonal vs. atonal is a product of the changing perception of theory and harmony over the historical continuum - Chopin would be slightly atonal to Bach, and Bartok to Chopin. Same thing in jazz - Ellington would be atonal to Armstrong (slightly), Diz, Bird & Miles to Ellington, and Ornette Coleman to everybody :smiley:

It’s a matter of what is considered conventional tonal harmony by the standards of the day.

What is considered atonal music currently is the 20th century composers like Wolff, Berg, late Stravinsky, Hauer, Schoenburg etc. A lot of these composers used certain techniques and theories in the pursuit of atonality - whole tone, 12 tone, tone row, microtonal, Musique Concrete etc.

see 12 tone
and atonality (warning - contains audio examples)
and general info and more general info in quasi-layman’s terms.

If I understand it correctly–and mind you, that’s a big if–atonal music is music that doesn’t fit into any of the keys that are standard in Western music. Think of it as piano music that involves keys that are between the standard ones.

‘Atonality’ generally refers to music that is at the more recent end of the western classical music tradition. It’s not easy to sum it up without first of all explaining ‘tonality’. Which could take some time :wink:

Tonality places a primary responsibility on harmony. Harmony is both the vertical contruction of chords, the single sounding of multiple pitches, and also the way one chord progresses to the next. A (rather contentious) analogy is with sentence structure: we all know that “he kicked” is correctly followed by “the ball”, and that “he kicked the morphology” sounds much stranger. Nothing inherent in the words makes it sound correct or strange, and nothing inherent in chords makes music sound ‘correct’ or ‘strange’. But we have overwhelming cultural surroundings which introduce us to tonal music, in most cases literally from day one.

‘Atonal’, in its purest sense, means anything that doesn’t use harmony and harmonic progression as the principle foundation for a musical composition. It can therefore encompass many non-western musics, and various historical European ones. Leaving that aside, there’s the obvious issue of 20th century European music.

If you want to hear where Schoenberg was ‘coming from’, listen to Verklarte Nacht. It’s a fairly early piece, where he’s straining at the outer limits of what is possible with the tonal system inherited from Josquin, Bach and Wagner. Beyond this was chaos. Without any structure, it was difficult to create music that in any way corresponded to aspects of the musical language which they did not want to reject (progression, tension & release, etc). 12-tone systems offered a way to impose constraints upon atonality, and upon themselves, forcing them to focus on the other elements of the music.

Glass is a different matter entirely. Minimalism is something that grew up only partially as a reaction against European modernism (of which Schoenberg was a forefather). It’s also about embracing other cultures, not least an American one which had a comparitively-recent influence. Glass has spent a lot of time immersed in Indian music, which is really complicated stuff :wink:

Between what’s been said here and the last link in picker’s response, I think I have a better understanding. One thing that leapt out at me was this:

This brings up the age-old debate of who is art for? Atonal music seems produced for a coterie of insiders, like some of the more extreme forms of modern art. In liberating themselves from the major and minor scales, they’ve limited their approachablity to an “educated” audience.

No . . . that would be “quarter tones.” That is, on a piano, every key is one-half tone higher or lower than the next key; the octave is divided into six whole tones and 12 half-tones; but some musical traditions (e.g., Arab, I think) divide it further into 24 quarter-tones.

Unless by “key” you mean not a piano key but the key of G or whatever, which is a set of eight notes (the “diatonic” notes) selected out of the octave (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_(music)). But in that context, music that does not fit into any of the 12 major and 12 minor keys used in Western music would not necessarily be “atonal”; it might be music from some other tradition that does not use the same keys. (E.g., music that uses the “modes” of ancient Greek music – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_mode. A lot of traditional folk music and a lot of popular music uses “modal melodies” without being considered atonal.)

I once asked a guitar teacher about atonal music. The way he explained it, in “Western tonal music” every musical phrase goes tonic-dominant-tonic. If the phrase does not return to the tonic at the end, the phrase sounds incomplete and unresolved to a Western ear. Atonal music is experimental music that rejects that principle. (This concept was explored in one of the “Achilles and the Tortoise” dialogues in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0465026567/qid=1112744565/sr=8-1/ref=pd_csp_1/002-0689630-4340857?v=glance&s=books&n=507846). IOW, it’s music “without a tonal center.” The Wikipedia describes it thus – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonal_music:

I think atonal has been pretty well defined here, but I don’t necessarily agree that it takes education to appreciate atonal music. I think exposure has a lot to do with it. We come to expect that major chord at the end of the piece (I’m being extremely broad here, of course).

“Give us something familiar,
something similar
to what we know already
that will keep us steady.
Steady, steady…
Steady going nowhere.”

-Fiona Apple

Only if they’re evenly spaced. It appears I’m wrong anyway, so it’s academic.

Of course, audio examples are the best way to explain atonality. The simplest way to explain is that tonal music has a tonal center, while atonal music doesn’t. In tonal music you have keys or modes or whatever. You don’t even have to think about it in Western terms. Eastern or Western, Medieval or classical, most music has this basic structure. Melodies want to resolve to a certain note; harmonies to a certain chord.

Absolutly. The quote that paperbackwriter gives, that atonal music needs ‘study’, is IMO both wrong and highly condescending.

Are you aware that Philip Glass is tonal? You wrote that paragraph as though you expected Schoenberg and Glass to sound similar. In fact, one is atonal and the other is tonal, which is precisely why they sound different to you. This leads me to believe that, despite what you say, you are able to hear the difference.

With regard to Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, I think that’s partially true, and is the reason that the popularity of 12-tone music waned, and is all but dead as a compositional device today. And as GorillaMan already pointed out, I’m sure it had a lot to do with the rise of minimalism as a reaction against it.

BUT, I agree with the others that 12-tone music can be appreciated without having to study it excessively. It also depends on the composer. Alban Berg’s music, for example, tends to be a lot more accessible, as far as 12-tone music goes.

I certainly wouldn’t consider much of Glass to be tonal, in any meaningful way. Perhaps ‘non-tonal’ would be a term that would distinguish it both from music with no pitch centre, and also distance it from any functional and structural use of harmony.

Hey! Don’t you go misrepresenting me!

OK, maybe I wasn’t clear. Minimalism was a reaction not just against serialism, but against many elements of European modernism. In particular, against some of the socialist ideology about music and art having some role to play in ‘improving’ society. However, minimalism didn’t precipitate the downfall of serialism. Serialism was something that was useful and important to only a small group of composers - it just happened that three of them were extraordinarily gifted. Other composers, not so deeply entangled in the web of post-imperial central Europe, fully acknowledged the importance of serialism while not feeling any need to use such systems themselves (I’m thinking of Britten in particular). (All this is ignoring Stravinsky’s late serial stuff, which is a whole different matter entirely.)

Which begs the question: Who were these composers? They’re probably mentioned above, but I’m not explicitly seeing what or who.

I can’t say I expected them to sound like anything, until I first heard them. I assume that different composers from the same musical genre will have some identifable similarities: Telemann, Purcell, and Handel are all instantly recognizable as Baroque, and there are obvious similarities in the use of contrapuntalism, soloist instruments, etc.

But given what GorillaMan has said, I may be assuming too much similarity between Schoenberg and Glass.

Just clarifying: it’s not my opinon, just a linked one.

Schoenberg, Berg & Webern. These really are the only composers of their generation to fully embrace serialism and to do something worthwhile with it. There’s later developments of all-encompassing serial ideas that apply to rhythm, dynamics, etc., by Boulez and others, but don’t bother with these. At all. :wink:

I realised that - but thanks for clarifying, anyway (wouldn’t want anyone to think you said it!)

To add my own $.02, atonal music is music in which the standard diatonic scale is irrelevant, and in which key signatures are not only useless but downright out of place. It can certainly return to the note/chord where it started, can certainly be consonant, and can certainly have structure. But it doesn’t, by definition, have a key center.

To ask what it sounds like is a flawed question. What does tonal music sound like? It sounds like a Mozart symphony, plainsong, Dixieland jazz, acid rock, and Electric Boogaloo. It can sound like almost anything, but it must have a key center. Atonal music can be in the style of any of those as well. For a good example of 12 tone row in rock, listen to Gentle Giant’s So Sincere.


‘Tonal’ generally means much more than simply having some central reference point. It’s about the relationship of one chord to another, and about harmonic structure over a longer timeframe. Additionally, plainsong certainly doesn’t fit any critera for tonality, not least because it can (by definition) only have implied harmony. Actually, plainsong is a very good example of how non-tonal music can have a pitch centre.

Went and listened…nope, not a good example of atonality. There’s definite harmonic direction there - and the use of 12-tone gestures provides contrast with the tonality of much of the vocal line, and is a horrendous distortion of Webern (IMHO, obviously…)