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Topic: How to listen to atonality?

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  1. #11

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    I agree with most of what cowboy says. I think most people have more or less the same definition of atonality *in concept*, but hardly in their ears. If we were to say simply that an atonal piece had no discernable tonal center, then we'd have to examine how discerning our ears were. Perhaps we should base the definition on how far the composer has strayed from "conventional" western harmony practice, but then we'd have to decide where the convention ended, as opposed to where it was simply extended. Very sticky stuff.

    In any case, Le Sacre is very tonal to my ears, even where it is extremely dissonant. By contrast, take his later Agon... it is much less tonal (except for the first and last sections), but much less dissonant. Or take Petrushka... even some recognizable keys in there, though they are sometimes used two at a time, especially C and F#.

    It's all a matter of degrees.
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  2. #12

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Wow two Prokofiev recommendations. I will have to remember that...

    Quote Originally Posted by qccowboy
    Modal music is "not tonal" by the strictest definition.
    I don't know what you mean, Cowboy. I just looked up the definition of "atonal" on dolmetsch.com, and it had the same definition I gave earlier.

    And I don't mean disrespect to your professor, but words are defined by consensus, not by etymology. If people have decided that inflammable means flammable, well then that's what it means, regardless of the absurdity. And if dictionaries say atonal means lacking tonal center, well then there you have it, right? Or am I missing your point?

    I hope no one's taking my post to mean "Shostakovich sucks!" or "people who like atonal music are stupidheads!" or anything like that. I didn't realize how loaded the word was.

  3. #13

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Soooo, then I ask, if Shostakovich #5 is tonal, and I just can't tell, is it because I have trouble interpreting dissonance?

  4. #14
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    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Shostakovich's 5th would not fall under the categorie of atonal by any defintion be it a general categorization or strict scientific analysis of the musical devices or language. It is an extremely tonal work although not diatonic as in Mozart and co. In fact he uses key signatures in the different movements. There are dissonances in the piece but not particularly severe ones and certainly not abundant.

    I think you may find his harmonic language foreign and atypical but it isn't atonal. He's considered a Neo Classicist with the use of the sonata form and other traditional devices. Atonal means those classic devices are done away with resulting in a completely different feeling and sound than the Classic period rather than evoking it as this great composer does.

  5. #15

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Smiley
    Soooo, then I ask, if Shostakovich #5 is tonal, and I just can't tell, is it because I have trouble interpreting dissonance?
    Could be. The interpretation of dissonance varies greatly from person to person. There are those who hear relatively simple structures, such as 9th and 13th chords, as dissonant. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those, like myself, who don't hear dissonance at all - in the sense of any combination of pitches (usually closely spaced) being perceived as unpleasant or grating. Nor do I find the presence (or lack of) tonal centers as a particularly significant factor in my enjoyment of a piece of music. I haven't heard "dissonance" for decades, largely because I spent a great deal of time listening to a wide variety of 20th century composers when I was young. I was in a quest to hear things I had never heard before. I wanted to be challenged and surprised. It was a great adventure in sound and I look back fondly on my journey, which continues to this day. I became so acclimated to bi-tonality, polytonality, and various atonal techniques that I came to actually hear music differently than before I "stretched" my ears. Instead of hearing consonance and dissonance I reached the point of hearing a continuum of differences in "textural density." A single pitch or a pair of pitches at an interval of a third are heard as sparse textures. A forearm slammed to the keyboard causing a large cluster of notes is a dense texture. But neither is unpleasant to my ear. In fact, the cluster is a particularly delicious sound that I find satisfying in a way that a major chord rarely is. We are all "trained" by what we hear. Your ears will change as you become immersed in music that contains unfamiliar territory. The unfamiliar will become familiar. You may end up still preferring standard tonal music but, then again, if you give yourself the chance, you may discover delights you had never imagined - things that go beyond the satisfaction you get from the music that is comfortable to you today. There's a whole world of sound out there to explore and it is the job of the composer to explore it. The more colors you have on your palette, the more creative choices are available to you.

    Tom

  6. #16

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    A simply excellent reply, Tom. I can't imagine anyone reading it and not wanting to begin challenging their ears more.
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  7. #17
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    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    I take Tom's point but the problem is that if you hear no dissonance, then you may not be able to feel the deliberate dissonances created in otherwise "consonant" music by composers to create specific effects. This is particularly the case in the classical era (or even earlier) where some harmony which would have been considered shocking then is hardly noticed now --how many of us, would currently find the beginning of Mozart's quartet actually subtitled "Dissonance", dissonant?

    And yet there are a huge number of people like the poster who still regard Shostakovich 5th as atonal (I agree wholeheartedly with Michel's observations on this term). Much is to do with exposure to different kinds of music and experience but there's more to it than that --for many, including myself, there is a instinctive gut reaction in favour of or against certain kinds of harmony which cannot be "educated" out.

  8. #18

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Smiley
    I don't know what you mean, Cowboy. I just looked up the definition of "atonal" on dolmetsch.com, and it had the same definition I gave earlier.

    And I don't mean disrespect to your professor, but words are defined by consensus, not by etymology. If people have decided that inflammable means flammable, well then that's what it means, regardless of the absurdity. And if dictionaries say atonal means lacking tonal center, well then there you have it, right? Or am I missing your point?

    I hope no one's taking my post to mean "Shostakovich sucks!" or "people who like atonal music are stupidheads!" or anything like that. I didn't realize how loaded the word was.
    no, "music that has no tonal center" is only a VERY loose definition of "atonal".
    before defining "atonal" one must first understand "tonal".
    "tonal" music, in the strictest sense (as I said earlier - "strict") is music that is based on principles of tonal relationship/tonal harmony. This means music that is governed by the tonic-dominant-subdominant relationship.
    I know many people here would argue that this is not necessarily so, and this is why I'm ALSO including the caveat "in the strictest sense".

    Quartal music may have a tonicized "tonal center" but it is not "tonal music".
    Modal music, likewise, has a "tonal center" but is not strictly speaking "tonal music" because it's harmonic rules are based on the relationships of certain key tones of each different mode rather than strictly ont he tonic-dominant-subdominant relationship (some modes HAVE no subdominant-dominant relationship).

    The reason for the above "rule" (again , in the strictest sense) is that music that does not have the subdominant-dominant relationship does not have the same need, nor mechanism, for resolution to the tonic. Wagner's music is largely "atonal" in the sense that he freed harmony from the stricture of the dominant-subdominant relationship. His music always returned to "tonal" relationships when he was reinforcing the arrival of his target tonic, but otherwise, he avoided the all important dominant-subdominant relationship so as to blur and disguise any possible passing tonics.

    As I've said previously, the term "atonal" is too often confused with "dissonant", which is a relative term. Music can not "seem" atonal/tonal... it either is or isn't. Music CAN "seem" dissonant, however, since this is a perfectly relative and subjective question of perception.

  9. #19

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by qccowboy
    As I've said previously, the term "atonal" is too often confused with "dissonant", which is a relative term.
    Oh what the heck... let's complicate this further...

    Dissonance is a very specific term when it comes to counterpoint. It only refers to intervals between two voices, and covers seconds, sevenths, and tritones (and their octave extensions). In addition, some may find it surprising that the interval of a perfect fourth was also considered a dissonance when it occured between the bass and another voice. Therefore, almost every piece of music you have ever heard is chock full of dissonances!

    But for the most part, when people say "dissonant" they mean "not pleasing to *my* ears." I believe this is how Tom used the term in his post... it's not that he doesn't hear dissonances... of course he does! He just doesn't consider them displeasing.

    All of this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Charles Ives. During a performance of a piece by Carl Ruggles there was a heckler in the audience. In defense of the piece, Ives supposedly shouted to the man "Stand up and use your ears like a man!"
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  10. #20
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    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Dissonance for sure is relative from listener to listener and no doubt from culture to culture. It's often noted that thirds were considered dissonant in the mideival period.

    As far as tonal music in the 20th century, it was considered to be music that was generally harmonic and sonorous and not serial based. Really it is more about the character of the music and the way it came across on the most basic level. Bartok who used 4th based harmonies quite regularly is still considered a tonal composer. Webern with his serial 12 tone music would be considered atonal. Schoenberg's 12 tone music was atonal to be sure. Berg straddles the fence much more touching on very tonal and even Romantic harmonies while employing the 12 tone techinique very freely.

    The two camps (tonal vrs atonal) were at considerable odds in the last century with one claiming Schoenberg as patriarch and the other Stravinsky. Eventually these historic disputes (such as the intense contention between Ravel and Debussy advocates) fall under the categorie of it's all good. Stravinsky eventually employed the 12 tone technique and indeed wrote atonal music but what it really sounded like was Stravinsky.

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