Atonal Music: Definition, Schoenberg & Examples

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  • 0:00 Atonality
  • 0:55 Atonal Music
  • 4:05 Arnold Schoenberg
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Most Western music is based around certain tones. But what happens if we don't do this? Explore atonal music and discover how Arnold Schoenberg contributed to this style. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Listen to this piece of music; is it just me or does that sound a bit funny? It's definitely not what most of us are used to. That's because this is atonal music, a musical composition that does not have a tonal center or key. Most of us are used to music that has a key. You know, like how classical music always is called something like Sonata in B minor. That's the key, and frankly, that's the key to Western music. By which I mean the musical traditions of Europe and European America. So why would you ever want to compose music without a key? Well, for some people, the real key to music is experimentation.

Atonal Music

Right, so atonal music is music that is composed without atonal center or key. Now, what exactly does that mean? Well, Western music is made up of several tones, which are basically musical notes. In our musical system, there are 12 tones, each one being a half step higher or lower than the ones before and after.

The entire range of tones is called the chromatic scale. That's the full range of possible notes but in Western music, composers don't generally use the full range. They select one tone and then use only the notes that create the most effective balance of tension and resolution in relation to that central tone. So, the note around which everything is based is the central tone but the range of notes used around that tone is called a key.

Scale in the key of C
Scale in the key of C

For example, this is a scale in the key of C. Within this key, C is the central tone and only notes that work well with C are used. In this case, that's C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. By contrast, the B minor scale is built around the tone of B minor. This scale uses the notes B, C # (sharp), D, E, F # (sharp), G, and A. See how it's a different set of notes than the key of C? Different keys are based on different tones and use different notes.

That's how most Western music is made and the result is something like this (music). We are used to that sound; now compare that to this (music). Different sound, right? The first piece was tonal; it has a key. The second piece is atonal; there is no central tone, there is no key. Rather than selecting a central tone and than only using notes that sound good with that tone, atonal music uses the entire chromatic scale, experimenting with the full range of musical possibilities.

However, atonal music does generally only use those same 12 tones from the chromatic scale. This may be a shock to some, but there are actually more notes in the world. Western music only uses those 12, with the distance between them called ½ steps.

Asian music, however, uses ¼ steps, which means they actually use tones that are half way between the ones we use. So, while we say that in between the notes C and D is a C#, Asian music has another note half way between C and C#. That's an entirely different musical system, so when we talk about atonal music, that's not generally what we are referring too. Atonal music, in the Western sense, is still based off that 12-tone chromatic scale.

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