Sunday, January 18, 2009

Atonal — Even the word sounds unpleasant!

    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
Do you have an unpleasant connotation with the word, "atonal?"

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.]
The "common practice period" is generally understood to refer to the baroque, classical, and romantic periods of European music history, roughly spanning 1600 to 1900. So, using this definition, "atonal" could be applied to medieval plainchant, renaissance masses, most Debussy piano preludes, etc., or it could be referring to a work that involves hitting the keys of a piano with an aluminum (so as not to mar the surface of the bat) baseball bat with reckless abandon. It could be referring to "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" by Pierre Boulez, or to "L'histoire du Soldat" by Igor Stravinsky, or to minimalist works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, or even parts of "Toontown Follies" by yours truly.

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.

19 comments:

Jenn Vail said...

This entry has helped me move on in my piece. I think I'm creating a barrier in my mind that says "clashy, crunchy, highly dissonant or nothing."

Thank you for this post - it has changed my thinking already.

Kim Codner said...

I think we as musicians need to listen to new music WAY more to understand it. There are some amazing pieces out there that aren't "tonal" and are SO captivating. You can make some very beautiful chords that tonality tends to sweep under the rug and label "bad" chords because they wouldn't fit within the tonal contraints. But i mean, take away tonality and you can play these beautiful sonorities as you please!

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I agree with Kim - we need to listen to more new music. I haven't listened to or played much 'new' music, but since taking composition last term, and now being in the contemporary improv. ensemble, I'm growing more and more fond of it and want to understand and learn more about new music.

I never knew how fun it would be to write atonal music until last term, and I'm really excited to be starting this new project.

Now I no longer hold that sort of negative connotation towards atonal music, and I've realized that it can be just as beautiful as Brahms and Mozart.

I'm glad that I've been forced out of my 'tonal' shell - thanks!!

smackie said...

Well said, all around. It's unfortunate that so much atonal music that we're exposed to (at least in my experience) forces us to equate it with noise. Just as you'll find music from other centuries that you don't like, so will you with new music. Atonal doesn't just refer to Schoenberg and his ilk--just as tonal doesn't refer specifically to Beethoven.
I'm curious to see what will become of new music in the years to come. Certainly there were great masters of the past who weren't entirely accepted in their time, but grew to be appreciated. I think time will ultimately show us what was a passing fad and what's here to stay.

Melissa B. said...

At first when I was somewhat of an ignorant music student I equated atonality with randomness. Atonal music isn't random at all! It can actually be quite coherent.

Atonality doesn't scare me or make me uncomfortable anymore. I quite like it - or at least what I've been exposed to.

Clark Ross said...

Everyone is making very thoughtful comments, which is great! In fact, your comments have given me ideas for further blog entries, one of which I may start today...

Jessica Blenis said...

I found that most of the atonal music I had listened to in the past was fairly dissonant and in general, harder to listen to than tonal music, but since last term where we were given the task of writing an atonal piece, my opinion has changed, even without listening to more atonal music- though I'm definately going to be doing this as well in order to get some more ideas. Maybe people who don't like atonal music should actually try writing it- they'd probably be surprised by how easy it is to come up with something that they actually like.

Michael Bramble said...

I believe that just being born in our generation, the "baby boom echo," we are nurtured to have negative feelings for 'atonal' or contemporary music.
I can't remember who talked to me about this, but I was attending a lecture and the lecturer talked about how the goal of most post-war music was to be 'weird' and 'unique'. The epicentre of these goals was works that involved sitting at a piano and not playing for four and a half minutes or coming on stage and feeding a piano a bale of hay. It's hard, I find, to not have a negative generalization of post-war contemporary music with figureheads such as John Cage or Le Monte Younge. These 'rotten apples' spoiled the barrel of post-war contemporary music for us. In our musical upbringing, many of us had to play the music of the baroque, classical and romantic eras, as well as once in a while a modern piece in the back of a RCM book that was probably by a Canadian composer that I will boldly say, probably not many of us enjoyed.
So, in my mind, this is why myself, and many of my peers, have a negative understanding of 'contemporary' music.
Neatly though, this lecturer, said that myself and my peers would react to the postwar era by running the other way in our music, to create music that shows the beauty of extended-harmony in tonal world and staunch, lush chromaticism in lyricism. I know this is how I feel, and a few close peers of mine do as well.
So what am I trying to say? I don't know. I think it is ovbious that many of us have a negative imagine of 'atonal' or modern music. How does one change this? I don't know.

Jill A. said...

From a listeners perspective most people consider atonal music to be noise and randomness. To try and change opinions about this form of music I think more people need to experience it from the perspective a composer. Being able to see and hear what can be accomplished in the realm of atonality opens the door to many possibilities. This was very obvious after last semesters composition class. Many of us were reluctant at first but after the first assignment I know everyone seemed to warm up to the idea of atonality, it really made a difference!

Jon Rowsell said...

I'm a good couple weeks behind commenting on this post, but I think it gives me a different perspective. By writting atonaly and learning more about that kind of music in class, I sincerly see how viable atonal music is. The very idea of dissonance and atonality meaning the same thing seems silly to me now. A month ago, I never would of said that I liked an atonal piece. But know, after listening to some of Debussy's piano preludes, I'm a changed man.

Bus said...

I think for me I had to treat atonality as just another normal part of music. When I think of it as a seperate entity it seems hideoous and impossible to compose anything nice within it. But when I look at an atonal chord as just being another tool for music it seems more approachable and I find it easier to work with that way.

Mind over matter?

Aiden Hartery said...

Before I came to music school, my definition of atonal music would have definitely have included the words bad, ugly, dissonant, unpleasant, or ... well you get the idea. But since coming to music school, and certainly since I have started composing atonal music, I've really opened up to what atonal music brings to the table. It isn't ugly white noise that doesn't make sense with no thought or planing involved. There are some beautiful chords, progressions, or melodies that just cannot be "allowed" in tonal music that you are free to explore with little restrictions in atonal music.
Listening to atonal music can really help anybody learn to appreciate it!

SarahClement said...

I definately think that atonal music has negative connotations, but I also think that this is due to false information. I also think that when people think about something 'not being' it automatically implies a negative. If atonal music is inherently 'not tonal' instead of just being music expressed in a different tonal language, it implies that it is somehow less. It could work both ways though. If something is constantly referred to as 'not dissonant' it could easily be thought of as too smooth, or boring, or sissy music if you will.

Tim said...

Like many of the other comments posted here, my connection to atonal music before the past couple years has been close to none.

I used to be the "Hi my name is Tim and I am a Bach-Beethoven-Chopin-Liszt / tonal functional harmony addict."

This has indeed changed and I like to admit for the better! While many atonal pieces I do find unpleasant and other words like jarring, gross, piercing, boring, or just plain uninteresting, there are for sure many that are absolutely gorgeous and exciting. In realizing that some composers wish for their pieces to be jarring and "gross," for a desired effect, this in itself is interesting and I believe that continued listening of those pieces would develop an enjoyment of them.

One such piece that I didn't realize was "atonal" until told because I was at this point under the impression that atonal music was... bad... is Messiaen's "Le Baiser de l'Enfant-Jésu." I personally adore this piece and can't wait to learn it.

Bekah Simms said...

I hate to admit it, but I'm a little guilty of associating atonal with the dissonant, busy, highly serialized stuff (like Boulez's Structures.) For atonal music that I like, I usually describe it as "contemporary" instead of atonal, even if it's not contemporary at all! I think the word itself indeed sounds unpleasant to us - it has negative connotations.

I don't remember the first atonal piece I heard, but I always remember being drawn more towards modal music than tonal (which like you say, is technically atonal!) and I loved any flute piece that had an angular and dissonant melody. I still hear lots of people that have gripes with "modern" "atonal "contemporary" ect ect music.. it's a little sad!

Jenny Griffioen said...

I find the more I am exposed to atonal or other contemporary music, the more I appreciate it. I've probably heard more this semester than in the rest of my life all together - between this class and post-tonal music and MUN concerts. Some I like more than others, but I am hearing now more structure and purpose in them. I find it especially interesting when looking at the scores to find all the patterns and logic hidden in them. They're not just random notes thrown together on a whim! And now I'm gaining a whole new perspective on it through composition. Learning that nothing in a good composition is random, every piece is the result of many, many careful decisions.

Josh Penney said...

As is said in the blog, it is difficult, as students learning theory mostly geared towards tonality, to appreciate atonal music. When I began my studies, I was under the impression the atonal music had negative connotations and that the music was indeed full of dissonances, adding to the unpleasant nature that is can have.

I think my greatest experience with atonal music is in writing it and performing it. In the intro to composition course, all of our assignments involved us exploring sounds that were not in the realm of tonality. This at first was very difficult to grasp. I didn't understand how to write without a key or set of chords, however as I began to simply use my ear as best I could, I was able to make chords and progressions that are not available in tonal music.

As far as performing goes, this year I tackled a sonatina, and it was atonal. This made the piece incredibly difficult, because I found it very difficult to put together with my accompanist, because of my lack of understanding of atonality. What made me appreciate it more was time really studying it, and putting together how the atonality really created music.

I guess concluding, my journey with atonality is still ongoing. I still find that I only like a small portion of what I hear, however writing it makes me use my ear in ways that I'm not used to, and performing it requires me to study it, and really know the music inside and out. I'm finding that I appreciate it more and more, it simply comes with time and patience.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Atonality was a foreign word to me almost entirely, before coming to music school. I can really appreciate the Schoenberg quote, as there seems to be a divide between people who see atonal music as it is-music, and people who separate music into that of tonal and atonal. When you are introduced to the concept of atonality by people, or surrounded by people, who are of the "art of not falling" type, it is very easy to be influenced into thinking all atonal music is unpleasant to listen to. This idea had been planted in my brain upon my arrival to music school, but was broken last summer, when I had the chance to play in the Newfound Music Festival. We played multiple works in succession that instead of using a metre and measures, used timers, so that rather than coming in on "measure 52" you came in at "1'22"'. We played at The Rooms, dispersed throughout different levels, being conducted by Dr. Caslor who was on the ground floor. The music we played did not contain tonal centres, which was uncomfortable to me at first, but as we played through the pieces it became evident they were very beautiful and overall it was a very liberating experience.

Composing "atonal" music was very intimidating at first, but exploring the different sounds, not being confined by a tonal centre was exciting and led me to writing some music I never would've thought of before.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Correction: It was actually the Sound Symposium in the summer of 2014 where we played at The Rooms, not the Newfound Music Festival!