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So I think I've always thought of "atonality" and "dissonance" as vaguely the same thing. Reading Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise I came to the conclusion that this was wrong, and that atonality referred to a lack of a tonal center -- the tonal center of a piece traditionally announced by saying that it's in C Major or G Minor or whatever. Wikipedia elaborates: "Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries."

The more I dig into this, the less clear it becomes. For one thing, it turns out I don't really understand the theory and practice of tonality, let alone concepts such as the chromatic scale. Pretty soon I'm deep into music theory, which means I'm quickly in over my head. Even in my confusion, however, I can't help but be entertained by the fact that the term "atonal" is itself controversial, with Schoenberg quoted as arguing, "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone... to call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis."

It also seems that there actually is some kind of connection between atonality and dissonance, with Schoenberg also arguing that "By the later nineteenth century the higher numbered dominant-quality dissonances had also achieved harmonic status, with resolution delayed or omitted completely. The greater autonomy of the dominant-quality dissonance contributed significantly to the weakening of traditional tonal function within a purely diatonic context." If I understand this at all (big if!), he seems to be saying that greater acceptance of dissonance in composition was part of the process by which tonality became less important over time.

I think it might help me to have these concepts illustrated with musical examples. The Wikipedia article on atonality mentions that Debussy composed some atonal music, but it doesn't say which pieces qualify. I've been digging around into articles about the tonic, dominant, triads, diatonic scale, etc and just feeling that I haven't a clue what it all sounds like. I took two years of piano when I was in elementary school, and sometimes I wish I'd stuck with it longer just so I'd understand scales and chords better. Well, I guess I sang in choirs up through high school too, but it didn't help. (Now there's some personal history I don't think about much anymore! Yes, I was a high school tenor.)

Update: "Tonality, Modality, and Atonality" sheds more light on this for me: "Objectively, there can be no atonality, as Schoenberg himself maintained. Composers of atonal music try to avoid all reminders of tonal music, evading major and minor chords (tertian chords in general), scales, keys, dominant functions, regular rhythms, repetition, etc. This means that atonality is psychoacoustical; i.e., it depends, at least partly, upon individual sensibilities and subjectivity."



( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 6th, 2013 01:00 am (UTC)
First of, anyone who says that atonality cannot exist is just playing games with pretending not to understand the distinction between the word and the thing, just like anybody who says that Arabs can't be anti-Semitic because Arabs are just as much Semites as Jews are. The word may not be the ideal choice of terminology, but there's no question - other than in the minds of deliberate jerks - what it refers to.

That said, there is a more accurate alternative term for the same thing, and that is "twelve-tone". In an ordinary major or minor scale, there are 7 tones in an octave, and 5 regular tones that are excluded (this discounts quarter-tones and microtones). A scale is formed by taking one note as the tonic base, and building a selection of other notes around it, using the standard major or minor scale pattern. Pure consonance consists of using only the 7 selected notes, and only in standard harmonic chords. Dissonance consists of using those 7 notes in non-standard ways (for instance, E and F may be part of the same scale, but play adjacent ones together and it's dissonant), and/or in sticking in some or all of the 5 excluded notes as well, in which latter case it's chromatic dissonance, "chromatic" meaning that you're using all the "colors" available, and the chromatic scale is the one with all 12 notes in it.

Use enough chromatic dissonance in your music, and listeners will start to lose the sense of the tonic, the home note. Schoenberg's insight was to do this deliberately, employ all 12 tones completely impartially, and totally erase that sense of the tonic. (And that's why it's called "atonality", Arnold, you berk.)

Schoenberg employed all kinds of rules to prevent a sense of a tonic center from creeping into his music. His basic one was to begin by writing what he called a "tone row", an arrangement of all 12 pitches in some order. You shouldn't have more than 2 pitches in succession that are in the same major or minor scale, for instance, and you had to go through all 12 before repeating any. Of course, in practice it was more complicated than that, but the goal was to be entirely rigid.

What Webern is saying in the article you link to is that, even with that, it's impossible to eradicate entirely the human mind's sense of a tonal center. I'd say that what would be more accurate is that it's impossible to eradicate the mind's search for a tonal center. Which is why 12-tone music, and even more music that aspires to the condition of 12-tone without quite sticking to Schoenberg's rules, is so damned disconcerting to listen to, much more than music with any amount of chromatic dissonance.

Schoenberg's hope had been to train the ear to accept 12-tone as "normal", but in that hope his project was a disastrous, and predictable, failure, but one which caused as much damage in the artistic realm as the equally disastrous failure of Prohibition did in social policy and in real life.
Mar. 6th, 2013 01:42 am (UTC)
Well, maybe this stuff will begin to make sense to me eventually. What you say fits with other things I read about atonality today. I also got the sense that the desire to escape tonality was also behind attempts by Cage and others to introduce chance into composition because tonality had a tendency to creep into even twelve tone music.

Schoenberg himself proposed the term "pantonality" as preferable to "atonality", but it was too late.
Mar. 6th, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
That's not really my sense of what Cage was up to. By the time he came around, the escape from tonality was a done deal. What Cage wanted to escape from was Schoenberg's ultra-Germanic systemic rigidity, which by then Schoenberg's disciples were applying to other aspects of music (note lengths, instrumentation, whatever), producing music that was completely pre-planned before the composer set down a note.

Cage's idea was to thumb his nose at all this by producing compleely unplanned music. Thus, chance procedures; and, as Cage was an I Ching user, it came naturally to him.

What it took a couple more decades for anyone to have the nerve to point out was that, while a Cagean score looked completely different from a Schoenbergian score, in the actual listening they often came out sounding exactly alike.
Mar. 6th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
One of the interesting/amusing bits in Alex Ross' book is how Cage and ne-plus-ultra serialist Pierre Boulez were good pals until Boulez decided Cage was Doing It Wrong. So many ironies there, including a Frenchman being more Germanic than thou.
Mar. 7th, 2013 04:37 pm (UTC)
My apologies for continuing to respond to your various comments, but I'm still thinking about all this. You say: 'Dissonance consists of using those 7 notes in non-standard ways (for instance, E and F may be part of the same scale, but play adjacent ones together and it's dissonant), and/or in sticking in some or all of the 5 excluded notes as well, in which latter case it's chromatic dissonance, "chromatic" meaning that you're using all the "colors" available, and the chromatic scale is the one with all 12 notes in it.' So is it the case that atonal music sounds dissonant because it ignores the rules about putting notes together in a consonant way? That is, is dissonance in fact built into atonality's abrogation of the rules of tonality? Is atonality inherently dissonant?
Mar. 9th, 2013 04:39 pm (UTC)
Atonal music is mostly chromatic dissonance. It's also harmonically dissonant, but that's almost incidental, compared to the bite that traditionally tonal music uses when it wants to be dissonant, using only the "right" notes but in the "wrong" ways.

A composer like Webern has scoring that's extremely thin, so "dissonance" in the form of "clashing chords" plays little role in his music. What you get instead is notes that jump all over the spectrum with no sense of a tonal center or resting place: the essence of atonality. Do we call that "dissonant" or not? I don't know, actually.
Mar. 6th, 2013 01:46 am (UTC)
re Debussy and atonality - I'm not an expert on Debussy, but I doubt that he wrote any pieces that were atonal in the sense of following Schoenberg's rules. Schoenberg didn't fully develop his system until about a decade before Debussy died, and it wasn't until much later that musical thugs began running around bullying composers into using it.

What Debussy was expert at - and none was ever more skilled - was in writing fully chromatic music that retained a sense of the tonal center and was (relatively) consonant. (Consonance and dissonance are always relative terms. Even when I wrote "pure consonance" above it was within a particular context.) I'm sure you could look at some of this stuff sideways and say, "that employs all 12 notes so impartially that it's really atonal," but it'd be a little like finding heavy metal from the 1960s: precursors, accidental overlap, etc.

In fact, atonality had been hit on before. Some of Liszt's very late piano pieces are experiments in what would become atonality, and someone once gleefully found a tone row in a work of Mozart's, pointedly ignoring that in context it's nothing of the sort.

Don't waste your time on Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles on technical subjects of all kinds are notoriously incomprehensible to anyone not versed in the relevant field of learning. The only problem with ignoring them is fending off experts who think the articles are perfectly clear and don't understand why anyone else doesn't find them so.
Mar. 6th, 2013 02:38 am (UTC)
Wikipedia isn't the only source that says Debussy flirted with atonality. Alex Ross said it too, and I do believe it had something to do with his chromaticism. I'm also pretty sure that Ross said Debussy found Schoenberg's theories interesting, although he didn't live long enough to hear much of the music. Off hand, I don't think Debussy ever named a key for his music, whatever that means. [Consults list of works.] No, he does give a key for the Piano Trio in G Major and the String Quartet in G Minor. None of his orchestral works have a key listed, however.
Mar. 6th, 2013 03:43 am (UTC)
My point isn't that Wikipedia is wrong - in these types of articles it's fairly reliable - but that it's incomprehensible to non-experts. It's not the place for non-experts to educate themselves on technical subjects.

I can't easily find from Ross's index where he says that Debussy wrote atonal music, though he does mention Liszt. And he quotes Debussy as calling Schoenberg "organized ugliness," which shows how far from the spirit of serialism Debussy was. I expect that associating Debussy with atonality is technically and narrowly correct but entirely misleading.

In 20C music, finding or not finding a key named in the title is almost unrelated to whether the work is tonal, either way. For one thing, it's untraditional to list a key for works with individual names (as opposed to a genre name), regardless of how traditionally tonal it may be, and such titles became more common in the 20C. And the tradition lasted for genre works beyond its usefulness. Labeling his String Quartet as in G Minor was more a bow to respectability than a useful statement on Debussy's part.

Mar. 6th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
Speaking of resources, I've just discovered that I have access to Grove Music Online (a subsidiary of Oxford Music Online) via the University. Oh dear.

Sez here: "Atonality. A term that may be used in three senses: first, to describe all music which is not tonal; second, to describe all music which is neither tonal nor serial; and third, to describe specifically the post-tonal and pre-12-note music of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. (While serial music is, by the first definition, atonal, it differs in essential respects from other atonal music and is discussed in the articles Serialism and Twelve-note composition; it is, therefore, not considered here.)"
Mar. 6th, 2013 05:57 pm (UTC)
OK, I can see how it's confusing. Grove is being a lot more stringent in terminology than I've been. I picked up your use of "atonality" and didn't switch to "serialism" soon enough, because much of the time that's what I really meant. Twelve-tone music is serial, though "serialism" usually refers to taking 12-Tone As A Way Of Life more worshipfully than even Schoenberg did, often applying it to other aspects of music than tones, a philosophy also called "total serialism."

Grove's third definition is a subset of the second, which is a subset of the first. Did that come across to you?

When I wrote of "music that aspires to the condition of 12-tone without quite sticking to Schoenberg's rules," I meant music that's atonal by Grove's second definition, i.e. stuff that follows Schoenberg's general idea but doesn't take his precautions to avoid establishing an accidental sense of a tonic. It's written with no intended tonic but doesn't use tone rows. If there's any atonal music by Debussy, that's the box it would go in.
Mar. 6th, 2013 06:18 pm (UTC)
It will take a while for this stuff to make sense to me (if it ever does), and as I said in my post, part of the process will be understanding tonality better, since atonality seems to exist only in relation to tonality (cf. Grove's first definition).
Mar. 6th, 2013 07:57 pm (UTC)
Regarding Debussy and key signatures, Grove says: "In as much as notation reflects compositional thinking, it is interesting to observe the expanded denoting of key signatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a kind of musical barometer. The point of a key signature in the music of Debussy, for example, is often only to delimit a pitch-class collection – usually the whole or part of a diatonic scale – rather than to prescribe a diatonic scale with the implied functional associations of tonic and dominant triads, consonance and dissonance, and so on, as in the notation and music of Liszt. On the other hand, the key signature of four sharps in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony op.9 serves more to indicate that an E major triad will function in some hierarchically significant way than to delimit a scale. The first pages of the composition are, in fact, so full of symmetrical collections, such as the whole-tone scale and the augmented triad, that the key signature serves virtually no practical purpose."
Mar. 9th, 2013 04:47 pm (UTC)
When an 18th century work is said to be in a particular key, that really means something. The entire work is built around that key. Not necessarily all of it will be in that key, but the other keys used will be in a recognizable traditional relationship with it. The music will move temporarily into the subdominant or the relative minor or whatever, and the nature of that key's relationship with the original tonic will be palpable.

As the 19th century wore on, composers began moving beyond these traditional shifts. In Mahler, for instance, the key that a work is named as being in is the first strongly established key (not necessarily the first key to be heard), and it then may move off to, and indeed be largely focused on achieving, some other key or keys altogether. Debussy named a central note and a principal mode, but the work isn't actually "in" G Minor in any sense that the 18th century would recognize.
Mar. 6th, 2013 02:52 am (UTC)
I also thought the point of finding the tone row in Mozart was in fact that tone rows don't preclude tonality. I've also seen it argued that Berg's twelve-tone music sounds more tonal than Schoenberg's or Webern's. I haven't listened to enough of their music to form an opinion, although I have one disk with works by all three that may support the argument. More listening is required!
Mar. 6th, 2013 03:49 am (UTC)
"I also thought the point of finding the tone row in Mozart was in fact that tone rows don't preclude tonality."

Only in the sense of providing an underhanded debating point in response to complaints about atonality. If you say that Schoenberg's music is atonal because of its tone rows, some wise guy can pop up with that line about Mozart. But serialist music is based on tone rows; Mozart's isn't. That's why in context his tone row doesn't function as one.

"I've also seen it argued that Berg's twelve-tone music sounds more tonal than Schoenberg's or Webern's."

It does. Or at least it sounds more lyrical and flowing and comprehensible to the non-serialist ear. There's no argument over that. The way that individual composers applied serialist principles varied enormously. Webern was far stricter and aesthetically "purer" than either of his brethren, and it was he who became the shining master to Boulez's generation.
Mar. 6th, 2013 05:27 pm (UTC)
At least Webern had the kindness to write extremely short pieces. The one thing I've heard by him (Six Pieces for Orchestra) is actually pretty interesting. As for Schoenberg, so far the stuff by him that really gets into fingernails-on-blackboard territory is the vocal writing. The instrumental writing doesn't bother me much.
Mar. 6th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
I may have quoted this before, but at this point I cannot resist putting in Bernard Levin's sublimely incisive description of Webern:

"The one thing that can be said in favour of Webern is that his works are mercifully short; each of the Five Orchestral Pieces, for instance, consists of not much more than three plinks and a plonk, and even the Six Orchestral Pieces, which figured in Tuesday's programme and are massive structures by comparison, were all over in less than ten minutes the lot, with an average for each item of five plinks, two plonks and a grrrrrr."
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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