Atonal Music: Definition, Theory & Structure

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to atonal music of various types. It will discuss the major compositional strategies of the early 20th century, and introduce you to some current trends in non-tonal composition.

What's That Sound?

From pop music to 19th-century classical music to Broadway and beyond, most of the music you'll hear on the radio and in the concert hall is tonal music. Tonal music, or tonality, follows a system of rules and structures that has been loosely codified since the 1700s. This system works to create a tonal hierarchy, or a system in which some notes are more important than others.

Mary Had a Little Lamb
Mary Had a Little Lamb - image by Greg Simon.

Think of the children's song 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' (the music is given above). Try humming or singing it. Do you notice how the last note, the word 'snow,' feels like it's an arrival at 'home' in the melody, as if we've come to a musical point of rest? That's because the song's tonal hierarchy places that note, 'C,' at the top of the pyramid . Our ears are trained to recognize these hierarchies, and when melodies and harmonies lead us to the most important notes in their tonal systems we find it satisfying. That's why you might characterize tonal music as sounding 'good' or 'pleasant.'

Around the time of World War I, composers began to experiment with atonal music (or atonality) which didn't follow tonal systems or hierarchies. They did so by designing systems and strategies for composing that made every note equal, avoiding sounds or musical gestures that made any note or harmony sound more important than any other.

Many of these pieces may sound alien, even bad, to ears that aren't used to atonality, but most atonal composers weren't trying to write bad-sounding music. Rather, they were trying to write music that challenged traditional tonal structures and questioned the general assumptions about what music could be. Some composers believed that with enough exposure to atonal systems, audiences could learn to hear them as normal and natural, just like tonal music.

Early Atonal Composition

One of the first composers to experiment with atonality was an Austrian composer named Arnold Schoenberg. His early atonal works were freely composed without a predetermined structure or system, but they deliberately avoided musical gestures that might suggest tonality (this practice is called free atonality).

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg. Painting by Richard Gerst.

In the 1920s, Schoenberg was living and teaching in Vienna, and he began working with his students on new theories of atonality. Their hope was to develop systems and structures for composition that didn't rely on tonal hierarchies. This group would eventually come to be known as the Second Viennese School, a nod to the 'first' Viennese group of great composers in the late 1700s.

Twelve-Tone Serialism

A twelve-tone row
A tone row by Anton Webern. Image by Greg Simon.

The Second Viennese School's greatest breakthrough was the development of twelve-tone serialism. This practice organizes all twelve notes of the Western musical system into a tone row; the composer doesn't repeat any note until all twelve have been used. The composer then writes using only iterations of the tone row, including variations that are backwards and upside-down (also called inverted). The composer is never allowed to repeat a note until all twelve have been used; this avoids the creation of tonal hierarchies.

Think back to 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and consider how many notes are repeated (if you don't read music, that's okay -- count how many notes are on the same line or space). This repetition works to create tonal hierarchies, and because twelve-tone serialism avoids it, these hierarchies are weakened.

Total Serialism

The twelve-tone method was extremely influential. In the 50s and 60s, even composers that had been mostly associated with tonal music (such as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky) began using twelve-tone serialism in their compositions. Meanwhile, a new group of composers had worked to refine and develop the twelve-tone idea and reduce hierarchies even further.

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