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Topic: What is atonal music?

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  1. #1

    What is atonal music?

    Can anyone here tell me in musical terms (or layman's terms) what atonal music is? I hear it everywhere and I've been curious about it for a while.

    Thanks

  2. #2

    Re: What is atonal music?

    Quote Originally Posted by 88chopin
    Can anyone here tell me in musical terms (or layman's terms) what atonal music is? I hear it everywhere and I've been curious about it for a while.

    Thanks
    I think the most simple explanation is: there is absolutely no musical rule for the next tone to come. The sequence of tones is usually determined by math, or some author's sequence such as his phone number, or by hammering on the keyboard at random (no kidding, there's even an artistic term for that ... aleatoric )

    For example, no scales (major / minor), no "classical" chords (third, fourt, seventh..), no fixed rhythm. There are rules such as serial music (where you gotta use up all 12 tones in some sequence) etc...
    Then some fanatics claim you shouldn't even think in terms of 12-tone system which should still be considered "tonal", but go absolutely haywire with any frequency you can think of, up into dog's hearing range...

    I don't believe anybody has nailed the term down precisely .. but everyone agrees on one thing ... you don't listen to it when you need to relax or cheer up
    -Matt

  3. #3
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    Re: What is atonal music?

    There are people here who can answer this question much better than I can – I am relying on a class I took years ago, books I’ve read a little more recently and music I’ve listen to, not the real academic or practical experience many people here have had.

    The simplest definition would be music that has no tonal center, i.e., no key. To establish a key, music (particularly pre-Wagner music) stuck mostly to one major or minor scale (that is until they modulated to another tonal center), hit the tonal center quite often and, most importantly, used cadences. Later music became much more chromatic and sometimes even avoided the feeling of a central key. After that came true atonal music.

    As Aziraphal said, with atonal music people went out of their way to ensure no one tone or one chord had precedence over others. All twelve notes had to be used equally and triads were to be avoided. They came up with all sorts of ways to do it, the most important most likely being serialism.

    This type of atonal music, in the right hands, doesn’t have to be jarring and can be quite beautiful and relaxing. Extreme dissonance is not needed to make atonal music and much very dissonant music is not atonal.

    I haven’t heard anybody say it, but I think today people aren’t as concerned with being as strict with their atonal music. They might use some of the techniques to achieve effects, but people don’t go around counting how many A flats they use to ensure there isn’t one more than there are Cs or F sharps.

    Another definition is music Tom loves and Hardy hates.
    Trent P. McDonald

  4. #4

    Re: What is atonal music?

    To paraphrase that famous Supremem Court ruling on pornography:
    "I can't define atonal music but I know it when I hear it!!"

  5. #5

    Re: What is atonal music?

    The definition of atonal music can follow different criteria’s:

    1. Not following the Major/minor or modal church scales which do characterize the music of the last three centuries. This means not only in the melodic lines, but also in the harmonies, principally in the dominant / tonica relationship. Judging from this criteria’s Stravinsky, Debussy and others of this time are already atonal composers.
    2. The second, more radical concept is to threat all 12 chromatic tones as equal which means, there is no such a thing as defined tonica anymore. To this style belongs the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Boulez and many other composers of the 20th century.

    This is only very simplistic explanation of the subject. I do recommend three books for the ones which are seriously interested to know more about atonal music” Allen Forte “The Structure of Atonal Music” / Joseph N.Strauss “Post Tonal Theory” and George Perle “Serial Composition and Atonality”

    Matt,

    The fact that you are not like atonal music is your very legitimate right. I do not want to offend you, but the right to write things which you obviously do know nothing about it and indirectly insult some of the most gifted composers in music history is a very negative aspect of the Internet. I would compare your statement as the one of an Analphabet giving his opinion on the writings of Franz Kafka…..

    Trent,

    Your statement is OK. I do not know who is Hardy, but if Tom likes, there must be more about it as written by Matt, because the least I would consider is that he is not exactly stupid and he also has quite some very good ears.

    Coda: Everyone has the right to like whatever music he wants, but to give explanation on a subject one does not know about, is not fair and can provoke quite some misunderstandings

    Iwan

  6. #6

    Re: What is atonal music?

    Aziraphal's answer is a little flippant. For some reason many people seem to connect the terms 'atonal,' 'avant-garde' and 'dissonant,' and as soon as they hear the word 'atonal' they immediately associate it with some of the more extreme experimental music of the last century.

    The easier way of answering the question is to turn it around, and ask what Tonal music is. Most people would agree that it is music in which a tonal centre is defined. The biggest mistake they make, though, is to view it in a very black and white way, and assume that there either is a tonal centre or there isn't. The other misconception is that having a tonal centre somehow requires music to be consonant.

    I find it more convenient to view music on a continuum, from 'More Tonal' to 'Less Tonal' - i.e. from having a very strong sense of a tonic, to a weaker sense of a tonic - and various pieces lie at different points on the continuum.

    Some of the strongest tonal music is that of Beethoven's period, during which the whole concept of 'journeying' from a tonic and returning to it was the conscious raison-d'etre for music. Because of this every chord was used for its functionality in either strengthening the key, or its tendency to dissolve the key, depending its location in the form.

    The further back you go, before Beethoven and Haydn, the less tonal music becomes. In the Baroque period composers' main concerns were drama, affect, gesture. Whilst similar triads are used to those of the Classical period, less consideration is given to their function in terms of establishing a key. C.P.E. Bach, for example, will quite often use a chord simply for its shock value in relation to the prevailing tonality, having the effect of weakening that tonic in the process. And at least one passage in Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' wanders so chromatically that it completely avoids establishing any key, and barely even suggests one.

    After Beethoven composers began to utilise much greater chromaticism. While they continued to write in the Classical forms, based on tonal areas, it eventually became clear that there wasn't much point. For instance, if you write a sonata and claim it is in C, then the Classical expectation would be an exposition which established, firmly, the key of C then modulated to a passage firmly rooted in G. If, though, you introduce a high level of chromaticisim -i.e. chords which don't sit well in any key - in your exposition, then the sense of C is weakened, maybe to the point of it being only nominally in C. If you then move to a passage which is nominally in G, but admits all the same chromatic chords as your passage in C then the whole concept of contrasting tonal centres is done away with.

    This is what happened with Wagner, Liszt and Mahler. Try listening to the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, in which Wagner suggests at least 8 tonal centres during the first five minutes, but refuses to actually have a cadence in any of them. This is extremely weakly tonal music. In fact, it is almost completely atonal.

    Going on, most of the music of Debussy is completely without key centre. Passages in which whole successions of 'dominant 7th' chords are strung together, without any of them actually functioning as such, are designed to deliberately dissolve any sense of stability. If you were to stop at random points in most of Debussy's piano music there is no way on earth that you could hum the current tonal centre.

    The problem is that because many people have confused the terms 'dissonant' and 'atonal' they have difficulty believing that the thouroughly consonant Debussy could possibly be atonal, because he is using the same pleasant triads that they hear in Beethoven, Mozart etc.

    The other factor which needs to be considered is that the sounds which your ear can associate to a tonal centre can be expanded through listening. Messiaen, for example, could hear the most bizarre clusters functioning as Dominants and Tonics. So, in the end, atonal music is probably music where you personally can't feel a tonal centre.

  7. #7

    Re: What is atonal music?

    Quote Originally Posted by Pingu
    The problem is that because many people have confused the terms 'dissonant' and 'atonal' they have difficulty believing that the thouroughly consonant Debussy could possibly be atonal, because he is using the same pleasant triads that they hear in Beethoven, Mozart etc.
    Excellent point. I'm guilty of it myself!

  8. #8

    Re: What is atonal music?

    Pingu,

    Thanks for getting things straigth!
    Your Post shoud be read by all "tonal only" people. I would also insist on the fact that understanding atonal music does mostly comes from listening to many of such works. This happen sometimes out of taste or also of some other motivation such as being an interpret which plays many such works. For newbies in atonal music, especially if already in adult age, it is necessary to make an effort, because it is less familiar as the tonal music. The ears and the mind has to get used to another way of listening, to understand some other music languages. But I know many people which did only listen to Mozart, Beethoven etc. which are now also listen to Messiaen, Varese, John Adams (is often tonal, but still strange for "tonal only's), and other atonal masters.

    Iwan

  9. #9
    Senior Member rwayland's Avatar
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    Re: What is atonal music?

    Quote Originally Posted by Pingu
    Aziraphal's answer is a little flippant. For some reason many people seem to connect the terms 'atonal,' 'avant-garde' and 'dissonant,' and as soon as they hear the word 'atonal' they immediately associate it with some of the more extreme experimental music of the last century.

    * * *

    The easier way of answering the question is to turn it around, and ask what Tonal music is. Most people would agree that it is music in which a tonal centre is defined. The biggest mistake they make, though, is to view it in a very black and white way, and assume that there either is a tonal centre or there isn't. The other misconception is that having a tonal centre somehow requires music to be consonant.

    I find it more convenient to view music on a continuum, from 'More Tonal' to 'Less Tonal' - i.e. from having a very strong sense of a tonic, to a weaker sense of a tonic - and various pieces lie at different points on the continuum.

    * * *

    The problem is that because many people have confused the terms 'dissonant' and 'atonal' they have difficulty believing that the thouroughly consonant Debussy could possibly be atonal, because he is using the same pleasant triads that they hear in Beethoven, Mozart etc.

    * * *
    Well, that is one of the better expositions of the matter that I have encountered in a long time. I have frequently found it necessary to explain some of my piano music in similar terms. Much of it seems to be of some loose form of tonality, but shifting, and sometimes defining the key is impossible, and the key signature is simply a notation convention for ease of reading and playing.

    Richard

  10. #10

    Re: What is atonal music?

    The amazing thing about the human mind is its ability to detect patterns. This makes it amazingly difficult to right true atonal music. So Schoenberg creates the 12 tone rules so every note is supposedly equal. Of course due to dynamics, note length, and other considerations, it is inevitible that a particular tone center will stand out.

    Of course a lot of composers write music without a tonal center that would surprise some people. Aaron Copland is the biggest example. While still using a major or minor scale to build his music on, he would not use standard counterpoint and would commonly use any interval in his harmonization.
    Jess Hendricks
    DMA Student and Teaching Asst in Music Theory/ Composition at the University of Miami
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