From New World Encyclopedia

Atonality describes music that does not use a tonal center or key. It applies to music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies which characterized European classical music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Atonality usually describes compositions written from about 1907 to the present day where tonality is not used as a primary foundation for the work.

Although there were progressive composers such as Josef Suk who individually experimented in chromatic polyphony leading towards atonality, the most prominent school to compose in this manner was the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Composers such as George Antheil, Béla Bartók, John Cage, Carlos Chávez, Aaron Copland, Roberto Gerhard, Alberto Ginastera, Alois Haba, Josef Matthias Hauer, Carl Ruggles, Luigi Russolo, Roger Sessions, Nikos Skalkottas, Toru Takemitsu, Edgard Varèse, and others, including jazz artists such as Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor (Radano 1993, 108-109), have written music that is described as atonal, and many traditional composers “flirted with atonality,” in the words of Leonard Bernstein.

Though atonality and the resulting dissonance which it often produces can provide certain expressive or atmospheric conditions in music, as a end unto itself (dissonance for dissonance's sake) did not find favor with many composers until after World War II when serialist and formulaic methodologies began to hold sway in modern composition. Some composers were highly outspoken about the "soulless" aspect of atonal music.

In a "manifesto" written in 1932, Ottorino Respighi was among several prominent Italian composers who denounced atonality as being decidedly inhumane in its rationale. Among other things the document bemoaned the "mechanical" and hyper-intellectual methodologies employed by composers of the avant-garde. Respighi and his counterparts viewed the atonal utterances of the avant-garde as being absurdist on certain levels in that it neglected, and even displayed a hostility, to the old musical order in which melody and perceptual clarity were necessary for understanding and communication. In an interview he stated: "Dissonance has its place as a medium of tone-color and polytonality has important uses as a means of expression, but for their own sake, they are completely abhorrent to me."

History of atonality

While music without a tonal center had been written previously, like Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité of 1885, it is in the twentieth century that the term atonality began to be applied to atonal pieces, particularly those written by Arnold Schoenberg and The Second Viennese School.

Their music arose from what was interpreted as the crisis of tonality between the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in European classical music. It was described by composer Ferruccio Busoni as the “exhaustion of the major-minor key system” and by Schoenberg as the “inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others.” This situation had come about historically through the increasing use over the course of the nineteenth century of

ambiguous chords, less probable harmonic inflections, and the more unusual melodic and rhythmic inflections possible within the style[s] of tonal music. The distinction between the exceptional and the normal became more and more blurred. As a result, there was a concomitant loosening of the syntactical bonds through which tones and harmonies had been related to one another. The connections between harmonies were uncertain even on the lowest—chord-to-chord—level. On higher levels, long-range harmonic relationships and implications became so tenuous that they hardly functioned at all. At best, the felt probabilities of the style system had become obscure; at worst, they were approaching a uniformity which provided few guides for either composition or listening. (Meyer 1967, 241)

The first phase is often described as "free atonality" or "free chromaticism" and involved the conscious attempt to avoid traditional diatonic harmony. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck (1917-1922) by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schoenberg.

The second phase, begun after World War I, was exemplified by attempts to create a systematic means of composing without tonality, most famously the method of composing with 12 tones or the 12-tone technique. This period included Berg's opera Lulu and the Lyric Suite, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, his opera Jacob's Ladder and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his final string quartets. Schoenberg was the major innovator of the system, but his student, Anton Webern, then began linking dynamics and tone color to the primary row, making the row not only of notes but of other aspects of music. This, combined with the parameterization of Olivier Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism.

Atonality emerged as a pejorative term to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as "Bolshevik" and labeled as degenerate (Entartete Musik) along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime. Many composers had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse at the end of World War II.

In the years that followed, atonality represented a challenge to many composers—even those who wrote more tonal music were influenced by it. The Second Viennese School, and particularly 12-tone composition, was taken by avant-garde composers in the 1950s to be the foundation of the New Music, and led to serialism and other forms of musical innovation. Prominent post-World War II composers in this tradition are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Milton Babbitt. Many composers wrote atonal music after the war, even if they had pursued other styles at an earlier time. Noted composers included Elliott Carter and Witold Lutosławski. After Schoenberg's death, Igor Stravinsky began to write music with a mixture of serial and tonal elements. During this time, the chord progressions or successions designed to avoid a tonal center were explored and named. A vocabulary described as 'musical set theory' encompasses all pitch and pitch-class sets, whether used in tonal, atonal, modal, or other music. Iannis Xenakis generated pitch sets from mathematical formulas, and also saw the expansion of tonal possibilities as part a synthesis between sound and science which he said was represented in the music of ancient Greece.

Atonal music continues to be composed, and many atonal composers of the late twentieth century are still alive and active. Serial atonal composition began to fade in the 1960s—where, on one hand, aleatoric music, spectral music, and electronic music demanded more and more attention and, on the other, musicians influenced by Eastern mysticism, modality, and minimalism began writing music based on "ostinato patterns."

Controversy over the term itself

The appropriateness of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Arnold Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone ... [T]o 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..." (Schoenberg 1978, 432). For some, the term continues to carry negative connotations.

"Atonal" developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Attempts to solve these problems by using terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," and "without tonal center" instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.

Composing atonal music

Setting out to compose atonal music may seem complicated because of both the vagueness and generality of the term. Additionally George Perle (1962) explains that, "the 'free' atonality that preceded dodecaphony precludes by definition the possibility of self-consistent, generally applicable compositional procedures." However, he provides one example as a way to compose atonal pieces, a pre-twelve tone technique piece by Anton Webern, which rigorously avoids anything that suggests tonality, and chooses pitches that do not imply tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was not allowed is required and what was required is not allowed. This is what was done by Charles Seeger in his explanation of dissonant counterpoint, which is a way to write atonal counterpoint.

Further, he agrees with Oster and Katz that, "the abandonment of the concept of a root-generator of the individual chord is a radical development that renders futile any attempt at a systematic formulation of chord structure and progression in atonal music along the lines of traditional harmonic theory." Atonal compositional techniques and results "are not reducible to a set of foundational assumptions in terms of which the compositions that are collectively designated by the expression 'atonal music' can be said to represent 'a system' of composition."

Perle also points out that structural coherence is most often achieved through operations on intervalic cells. A cell "may operate as a kind of microcosmic set of fixed intervalic content, statable either as a chord or as a melodic figure or as a combination of both. Its components may be fixed with regard to order, in which event it may be employed, like the twelve-tone set, in its literal transformations... Individual tones may function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells."

Audio examples of the role of dissonance and tonality claimed as part of our own physiological make-up (the ear) may be heard in the following links (which also are examples of the interaction and effect of consonance and dissonance upon each other).[1][2][3]

Criticism of atonal music

Composer Anton Webern held that new laws asserted themselves that made it impossible to designate a piece as being in one key or another in his writing, "The Path to New Music."[4] Differing in opinion, musicologist Robert Fink has stated that all music is perceived as having a tonal center. [5][6]

Swiss conductor, composer, and musical philosopher Ernest Ansermet, a critic of atonal music, wrote extensively on this in the book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (Ansermet 1961) where he argued that the classical musical language was a precondition for musical expression with its clear, harmonious structures. Ansermet argued that a tone system can only lead to a uniform perception of music if it is deduced from just a single interval. For Ansermet, this interval is the fifth (Mosch 2004, 96). So the incomprehensible (to Ansermet) modern atonal music, by choosing interval relations seemingly at random, could not achieve such an impact, ethos and catharsis for an audience. Influential critic Theodor Adorno argued, however, that one could express anything from tragedy to a smirk in atonality, provided one had compositional ability.

Arnold Schoenberg's prediction in 1948 that the public's resistance to atonality and "the emancipation of dissonance" would eventually diminish with repeated exposure has proved false. Richard Turuskin's observation that the lack of an underlying "deep structure" born out of the subconscious (as with natural languages) led to a condition where the disconnect between the "content of the utterance" and the "manner of its delivery" becomes a constant irritant to those seeking to find meaning and pleasure in their encounter with music.

This view is reinforced by Leonard Bernstein in his music/language analogy in the Harvard Lectures. Alluding to Schoenberg's serial methods, Bernstein states: "The trouble is that the new musical 'rules' of Schoenberg are not apparently based on innate awareness, on the intuition of tonal relationships. They are like rules of an artificial language, and therefore must be learned. This would seem to lead to what used to be called 'form without content,' or form at the expense of content—structuralism for its own sake." For some musicians the "new objectivity" that spawned atonal and hyper-intellectualized methods of composing with their emotionally arid characteristics, was antithetical to the philosophical legacy of their art form.

Consider the views of early twentieth-century German composer, Paul Hindemith, regarding the state of modern music in the first half of the century: There are composers "...who flatly deny the ethic power of music, nor do they admit any moral obligation on the part of those writing. For them, music is essentially a play with tones, and although they spend a considerable amount of intelligence and craftsmanship to make it look important, their composition can be of no greater value, as a sociological factor, than bowling or skating." Hindemith's concern was echoed by other prominent composers who shared his lack of enthusiasm for the dissonant utterances of atonal music.

In the historical view, neither of the extremes of prediction have come about. Atonality has neither replaced tonality, nor has it disappeared. There is, however, much agreement amongst many composers that atonal systems in the hands of less-talented composers will still sound weak expressively, and composers with a genuine tonal gift are capable of writing exquisite works using twelve-tone methods. In other words, both good and bad music can be created under any system, or without using one at all. Serialism itself has been taken up by a few tonal composers as a modest replacement for the common practice tendencies of certain traditional forms to conform to certain tonal expectations.

Leonard B. Meyer presciently predicted in 1967 that by the turn of the century there would be a plethora of musical styles co-existing with no "triumphant" style holding sway. Globalization, technology and increased cultural interfacing have proved Meyer's prediction of cultural cross-pollination and the resulting musical diversity correct.

By the early 1980s, composers were turning to more "accessable" and ingratiating styles. Minimalism (Riley, Reich. Glass), Neo-Romanticism (Liebermann, Hoiby, Rochberg), and Neo-mysticism (Gorecki, Paert, Tavener) had supplanted the crabbed mannerisms of serialism and were finding favor with audiences. This diversity is a result of a cultural cross-pollination. Other prominent composers, such as Tan Dun, Roberto Sierra and Osvaldo Golijov, have incorporated their native folkloric elements into their music thereby contributing to the great pluralism that now exists in art music.

Composers of the American minimalist movement were reacting against what they saw as the stilted academicism of American university composition departments.


  1. The effect of context on dissonance, Greenwich Publishing. Retrieved February 19, 2008.
  2. The role of harmony in music. Greenwich Publishing. Retrieved February 19, 2008.
  3. ExperimentGreenwich Publishing. Retrieved February 19, 2008.
  4. Anton Webern "The Path To The New Music" Edited by Willi Reich, Theodore Presser Company, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1963, in association with Universal Edition, London . Wden . Zurich . Mainz. Original German Edition Copyright 1960 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien. p.51
  5. Crosscurrents A-NATURAL" ATONALITY: The False "Science" of Modern Atonal Music by Robert Fink, 2004 Retrieved September 21, 2011.
  6. On the Origin of Music: An Integrated Overview of the Origin and Evolution of Music (c) 2003 Greenwich By Robert Fink Retrieved September 21, 2011.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ansermet, Ernest. Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. 2 v. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1961.
  • Beach, David (ed.). "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music" in Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. ISBN 0300028008
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. "Ansermets Polemik gegen Schönberg." Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 127, no. 5:179–83, 1966.
  • Katz, Adele T. Challenge to Musical Traditions: A New Concept of Tonality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc./New York: Da Capo, 1945/1972. OCLC 926393
  • Krausz, Michael. "The Tonal and the Foundational: Ansermet on Stravinsky." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42:383–86, 1984.
  • Meyer, Leonard B. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
  • Mosch, Ulrich. Musikalisches Hören serieller Musik: Untersuchungen am Beispiel von Pierre Boulez' «Le Marteau sans maître». Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verag, 2004.
  • Perle, George. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press, 1962. ISBN 0520074300.
  • Philippot, Michel, "Ansermet’s Phenomenological Metamorphoses." translated by Edward Messinger. Perspectives of New Music 2, no. 2 (Spring-Summer): 129–40, 1964.
  • Radano, Ronald M. New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold. Theory of Harmony. translated by Roy Carter. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.
  • Webern, Anton. The Path to the New Music, translated by Leo Black. Bryn Mawr. Pennsylvania: Theodore Presser; London: Universal Edition, 1963.


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