- I find above all that the expression, 'atonal music,' is most unfortunate--it is on a par with calling flying 'the art of not falling,' or swimming 'the art of not drowning.' Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, p.210
If you do, you're not alone; many people who have some understanding of what "tonality" means don't seem to feel very warm and fuzzy about the concept of atonality.
But, strictly speaking, all that is meant by the word is that the music in question is not based on tonality. It doesn't really tell us anything about what the music is based on.
A quick primer on tonality, from Wikipedia:
- Tonality is a system of music in which specific hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a key "center" or tonic. The term tonalité originated with Alexandre-Étienne Choron (1810) and was borrowed by François-Joseph Fétis in 1840 (Reti, 1958; Simms 1975, 119; Judd, 1998; Dahlhaus 1990). Although Fétis used it as a general term for a system of musical organization and spoke of "types de tonalités" rather than a single system, today the term is most often used to refer to Major-Minor tonality (also called diatonic tonality, common practice tonality, or functional tonality), the system of musical organization of the common practice period, and of Western-influenced popular music throughout much of the world today. [Emphasis mine.]
It could refer to music that is as deeply moving and beautiful as any music ever composed, or it could be applied to very harsh, disturbing music.
"Atonal" doesn't necessarily equate with "highly dissonant" any more than "tonal" automatically means "consonant." Dissonance and consonance are essential aspects of tonality, but they are essential aspects of much atonal music as well.
Explore the various sonorities that can be created by the scales and modes that you created for our first project of the semester. There is no ban on the use of major or minor triads; I am hoping that your scales will lead you to discover other sonorities that you like and feel can be used in your compositions, and if some of the sonorities happen to be major or minor, so be it! No problem!
But just try to use them in ways that go beyond their use in the context of tonality.