Thursday, January 22, 2009

Atonality = Noise?

All comments that I have read in response to my previous entry were very thoughtful, and today's blog entry grows from one of those comments.

Simon wrote, "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."

I suspect that many fellow students would agree with this sentiment, and it has made me wonder how true that is, and why, if true, that might be the case.

I think that we are exposed to far more atonal music than we may perhaps realize; it has been used in the soundtracks to many movies and TV shows, but because the music's function is to serve the the drama, we tend not to process the fact that it is atonal.

On the other hand, I would guess that most music students' conscious exposure to atonality comes in the context of history and theory classes, and I wonder if there is something about the way we are teaching these classes that would lead many (or at least some) students to "equate it with noise."

What do you think?


smackie said...

A few more thoughts:

In a sense our brains are not yet prepared for this kind of music. We have been conditioned to tonality (or some form/extension of it) for so long. We have not yet adapted to this new style. I even read one view that essentially expressed that 12 tone rows and other aspects of atonality are but passing fads (in a sense) and it will never become the norm.

One reason we may associate atonality with noise could be that we've just heard a lot of bad atonal music, or music that we simply don't associate with. It could easily work the other way around. Let's say I've never heard modal music before, and the first dozen pieces I hear are by Byrd. Let's assume that his style is absolutely not to my taste (though, not the case in real life). Now I have the impression that this is strictly what Renaissance music sounds like and I'm disinclined to hear more of it--until someone plays a Gibbons piece for me, and I hear value in the style.

I hope that makes at least a bit of sense.

Clark Ross said...

You raise more good points.

I think that for most people, the music of Schoenberg and his followers (Webern, Berg, Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt, etc.) is an acquired taste. Sure, some people love it right away, but for others it takes time to develop an appreciation for it, and some people never do.

But, because this music is the first conscious exposure to atonality that most students have, and because many have a negative reaction to it, there is often a conclusion that all atonality will, by extension, produce a similar negative reaction.

This is kind of like saying, "I've tried fish three times, and didn't like it. I don't like fish." Who hasn't made a generalization like this at some point in their life?

Nobody, I suspect!

The problem in the fish example is that maybe the three servings of fish were badly cooked, or the fish was over-salted, or they were types of fish that have a particularly strong taste, or maybe they were served with heads on, and something about the way the fishes' eyes stared at the person trying to eat them was unsettling...

In other words, all generalizations are problematic! Or at least many of them... :-)

But the other point, maybe the main one, is what I was writing about yesterday: Atonality means "not based on tonality," but it says nothing about what it is based on... so it could be 12-tone music, or it could be music based on exotic scales, or based on colour, etc. A wide-open playing field, in other words.

Phew! Long-winded or what? Sorry about that!

Kim Codner said...

I remember being exposed to some raunchy atonal pieces in history- which were on our listening exams and I'd wonder how I would even bring up the motivation to listen to the "noise" to get used to it so I would be prepared for the exams. I think that because we learn about the most "important" musical figures in history classes and listen to their music, we miss out on hearing what OTHER composer's have composed in reflection to these "important" or "significant", or even "era-altering" composers. The composer's we learn about are the most famous because they usually are the ones who created a new sound or a new style but then there are the others who follow their examples and who take their new music and make it into something better. So basically we're missing out on these "follower" composers who have written "better" or "improved" music [IN SOME CASES]... and that's a sad story.

Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I agree with Kim in that we haven't listened to a wide enough range of atonal music to really understand and appreciate it. I know I haven't, at least.

I think because I've never listened to it for pleasure before, I've never really 'liked' it. It just wasn't something that I thought of doing until I came here and was exposed to a lot more new music.

I really love going to some of the faculty concerts where new music is being performed a lot these days. Even the symphony does some cool new and atonal stuff every now and then, and I especially love playing it! So - I'm growing a lot more fond of atonal music and I'm trying to listen to more and understand it better. Writing (or at least attempting to write) atonal music is definitely helping me and causing me to enjoy the composition process much more.

I think that if we listen to atonal music outside of a classroom setting we'd all enjoy it much more.

Michael Bramble said...

The mention of movie music I think is something that myself and my peers don't give enough consideration to! I went through a phase where I listened to a lot of movie music, and one thing that struck me was the large quantity of non-tonal music in this form. Of course there are many lyrical melodies accompanied by lush chords, but a large portions of the Hollywood blockbusters features sections that are more reminiscent to George Crumb. Off the top of my head not much comes to mind to support my claim, but some examples are Signs and some dark parts of the Lord of the Rings. Also, if I may bring television into the topic, there is LOST. Lost is a good example of the use of atonal music. There is a lot of eerie and ethereal effects and styles adopted by the strings in many parts that are very much non-tonal.
So although we may not be actively listening to the music, we are probably exposed to much more then we think.

Jill A. said...

I think Mike raises a good point! Most people don't realize just how much atonal music they are exposed too. Generally we don't tend to give atonal music much interest, which I think is quite unfortunate.

I have always tended to enjoy atonality and its uses, but I can definitely see why people are so hesitant when passing judgement.

If listeners are introduced to atonality in a more positive manner, then maybe the overall response wouldn't be so negative.

meg293 said...

I find that atonal music somewhat unpleasant to listen to unless I really understand what the composer is trying to portray. Then I find it really interesting. I saw and art exhibit once and a lot of the art was accompanied by atonal music but composers from around the same time period. When I saw the visual intention, it was much easier to connect that same intention to the music. I find that atonal music is kind of like listening to a foreign language - It just sounds like noise until you understand it. Then it can be incredibly beautiful and complex. This is why I appreciated the last history course!

Bus said...

For me if I'm going to write or listen to atonal music I, like meg, need to have some kind of association with it, be that in the form of a story, picture, poem, etc. It's a form of music I'm becoming increasingly more exposed to and it seems to work best for me when it is programmatic.

Melissa B. said...

When I first heard atonal music I will admit that I thought it was unpleasant - not necessarily "noise".

I definitely think that being in music school has taught me to appreciate it. I remember in my first year Dr. Szutor pushed me towards a piece by Ginestera which wasn't really atonal. I was totally afraid of contemporary music because of the stereotype that it's weird and out there. I ended up really enjoying the piece and I've played more contemporary pieces than I ever thought I would.

This year I'm playing pieces by Glass and Ives and I love it.

Atonality is definitely not noise and if people gave it the chance it deserves than more people would realize this.

Jenn Vail said...

I am looking at atonal music in a completely different way after taking this course - I appreciate it SO much more now! I will be honest, I don't like a lot of the *really* atonal pieces, but I certainly have a much greater appreciation for them than I did 4 months ago. It's certainly not noise, not at all!

Adam Batstone said...

I have always valued the atonal music, but agree that in general students who are studying this type of music in history class ARE influenced by the way it is introduced, taught and the prof's view on it.

Of course the first time i heard a piece by Schoenberg, the word "pleasent" or "nice" did not spring to mind. Why cant music be unpleasent? isn't there room for all different emotions within the spectrum of composition?

Also what is "noise"? There are of course "pleasent" noises, and noises we try to avoid. When does music become noise? I guess everyone would have a different opinion about this....

squinlan said...

I know that I haven't been exposed to a whole lot of atonal music. But through learning about an atonal compositional approach and composing myself I've realized that there is the possibility for real beautiful atonal music. And that there are a lot of different styles and approaches that all fall under that atonal 'umbrella'.

SarahClement said...

My first concious exposure to atonal music, or contemporary music or that matter, was in first year history when Kellie Walsh played us a recording of a piano being thrown off of Signal Hill during Sound Symposium. This blew my mind and definately left me equating atonality with destruction for quite a while. Obviously I since learned to think otherwise, but I do think that we tend to first notice atonality when it is pointed out to us for the purpose of outling something strange, new, or shocking. These these things can often be difficult for young musicians to swallow and end up giving them a false impression of contemporary music.

Olivia Budd said...

Before this semester, my automatic response to this would be that there is no doubt in my mind that atonal music is pure noise. However, after having played Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony with the MUN Chamber Orchestra this semester, I have to revise my thoughts. The first time I heard it, I thought it was garbage, however after several listenings of it (better yet playing it) it grew on me. I can now hear many melody and harmony lines in it, and find it quite beautiful. I guess there is something to be said for persevering with atonal music, and not writing it off after one listen.

Mitchell wxhao said...

You might say "All noise is atonal but not all atonality is noise"

Or you might not say this and you might set out to compose a tonal noise piece.

In the spirit of the twenty-first century, who says that noise is bad?

Mitchell wxhao said...

You might say "All noise is atonal but not all atonality is noise"

Or you might not say this and you might set out to compose a tonal noise piece.

In the spirit of the twenty-first century, who says that noise is bad?

Doog said...

I disagree that atonality is noise. Noise implies that the sounds have no inherent purpose or meaning. By the very act of composition the composer gives purpose and meaning to the sounds they produce.

I find an appropriate metaphor for the whole thing is one of weeds and a garden. A garden is very orderly. Much like a composition. Gardeners choose which flowers to plant just as composers choose which notes to use. Weeds fall into a category of everything that the gardener doesn't want in the garden. If the gardener doesn't want to grow sunflowers, they will consider the sunflower a weed and pull it up. On the other hand, something that is normally considered a weed, such as a dandelion could fit perfectly in a garden. It is all about the meaning that the artist gives to the art that separates what is weed and what is flower, just like it is the ascribed meaning that separates that is noise and what is atonal music.

Take a busy city street for instance. Most people walking down it would say that they hear a lot of noise. They say this because they do not give any specific meaning to the sound they hear around them. Someone else could come around and listen to the sounds on the same street give it purpose, thus creating music.

In short. The line between music and noise doesn't really exist. By the very act of composition someone has given meaning to the sounds they create, thus distinguishing it from noise.

Aaron Good said...

Sorry about the weird name. The above comment about noise and gardening is mine. I've changed my display name to be more sensible.

Luke said...

Atonality is a topic that has always interested me, from its beginnings in the primitive music of tribes in the middle Palaeolithic, to dissonance treatment in the Baroque era, and even the extremes of 20th century and contemporary music today. One particular movement of atonal music that interests me is Fluxus. The far-out avant-garde music of these musicians embodies atonality, and pushes the boundaries of what most consider to be "music". Is it really just "noise", can noise become music? I think the answer is yes, to a degree. It is important to take atonal music for what it's worth. Tonality has so many rules and limitations, why stick to them in your compositions. In a global sound world where atonality is often employed, and most often encouraged, why would composers simply write tonal music? I think being fluent in the language of tonality helps write better atonal music, and better music in general, but atonal music, and non-traditional forms and methods of developing music help me write better music than if I were limited to strictly tonal systems.

Siobhan said...

I also disagree that atonal music must be degraded to simply being "noise". Many of my electronic music compositions are atonal and while some of the sounds I have sampled are actually noise (i.e. traffic, water rustling, wind, people talking, etc.), when used in a compositional setting I believe they serve a different purpose.

As well, music that uses any (or all) of the twelve tones must similarly not simply be devalued on the basis of its lack of traditional harmony. Atonality may be an acquired taste or perhaps it takes a more mature/educated musician to appreciate it. Prior to coming to a post-secondary institution for music, I did not study nor listen to atonal music. As I completed music history and theory classes and attended more professional concerts, I was exposed to the world and background of atonality. The 'mere-exposure effect' is a psychological phenomenon whereby people acquire an affection for something simply because they are familiar with it. I think that as I became more familiar with atonal music I began to develop a stronger appreciation for it.

Having performed music by Schoenberg, Hindemith, and various contemporary composers, I have developed an appreciation for music without standard harmonic structure. Hindemith, however, would assert that his music is quite tonal. Instead, Hindemith did not believe in the existence of atonal music as surely all music is composed of tones. Try using that as a counter-argument!

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

As I posted in another blog, interest in music is typically generated by uncertainty (to create intrigue) anchored in familiarity (to hold attention). It is unsurprising then that most people find little enjoyment in much atonal music, given how it is highly (and often intentionally) distanced from the familiar heard in most people's daily listening. This does not mean that atonal music is bad, or unpleasant. Listeners unfamiliar with atonality should not be quick to dismiss it without allowing their ears to grow accustomed to it. Conversely, those steeped in atonality should not be quick to jump on its critics as unintelligent, uncultured, or uneducated.
By hearing more and more atonal music, I have come increasingly to appreciate it, to enjoy it, and even to write it, though I still have a strong preference for atonal music that retains continuity with the common practice period in at least some respects. Indeed, the extended possibilities found in atonal music delight me as both a listener and a composer.
However, though I respect the right of anyone to create as they see fit, I have a significant philosophical opposition to any music which is intended to alienate the listener, and there is a great deal of atonal music that fits this description. To shock a listener, to make them uncomfortable, to surprise them, to enrage them, these are all valid artistic goals, as are expanding the boundaries of music and breaking away from tradition. But many composers take it upon themselves to intentionally create esoteric music with the goal of shutting out the listener, and then to deride their audiences for their lack of sophistication and lament their own tragic genius. As a composer who firmly believes that music is an experience to be shared by composer, performer, and listener, it is imperative to me that each participant get something out of the experience, be it aesthetic pleasure, intellectual stimulation, emotional impact, or entertainment. Accordingly, I find myself unable to accept music that is not intended on some level to speak to those who hear it, and I am irritated at those who attempt to pass off self-motivated rebellion as artistic superiority.
I believe this kind of intentional alienation has cast a shadow on atonality as a whole, making all such music guilty by association in the eyes of audiences. I truly believe that there is great value in atonal music, indeed even in the majority of atonal music. I think atonal composers must try to reach out to their audiences more than ever, and invite them to see the value of what we have to offer. In return, audiences must be more open to hearing music that challenges their sensibilities, in the hopes that in time they may come find great delight in a realm of music formerly closed to them.
To conclude, atonality is not the problem, and never has been. Its social baggage and the judgmental attitudes of composers and audiences alike. Atonality is a wonderful part of music, if only we can be willing to write and listen in a spirit of greater partnership.

Ryan Evans said...

To the original question, yes I believe the issue is the way atonality is presented and taught. There's been improvement at the collegiate level since you wrote this, but I can mournfully report there's been no progress at the elementary and secondary level from the 80s to present.

The root of the problem is that music education is artificially separated from other art education. Most public elementary schools have a music teacher and an art teacher; you go to one to cut construction paper, and the other to learn the words you're going to sing for your parents at the holiday or end-of-year concert. A really dedicated elementary music teacher/curriculum might devote some time to exposure and appreciation, but it's minimal.

At the same time, elementary-age children often DO get more formal musical education via private lessons; private sculpting lessons are rarely a thing, but private voice, piano, or violin isn't uncommon. That instruction is entirely technical, and exclusively done using common practice pieces; the only atonality encountered is a wrong note or a tuning issue, quickly corrected as a flaw. An instructor might introduce some conceptual theory (major/minor modes, etc), but in passing, and as an aid to performing the work "correctly".

Elective music starts coming into play between the 5th and 8th grades, and always in the same manner. High school is no better; all you add is selective as well as elective participation. I had the immense fortune to attend a public high school where all the wealthy boosters were parents of musicians. As a result, I had some incredibly rare opportunities, one of which was access to a full-year theory class at the high school level...even under those conditions, the very most modern sonorites I was exposed to were of the Vaughn Williams variety.

As pointed out, we were exposed to some atonality, via film. Not only was it never pointed out as such, film scores were also in that bucket (along with pop) of "not serious" music. When we sat down to do Real Work, we dealt with common practice. It's only been in the last 10 years that I've seen that grip start to loosen.

The culture shock of atonality is severe. It's not only that it's not everybody's aesthetic cup of tea, it's a paradigm shift. Just as students start to gain fluency with the theory they've been working within for more than half their lives, atonality is introduced. I've actually struggled to come up with an equivalent shock in other areas....the best I can manage is finding out that not only was the paper on Hamlet you did 2-3 years ago wrong and juvenile, you have to learn why it was wrong using only a Polish translation.

That can’t help but produce backlash.
It doesn’t help that atonality is often introduced via its most binary examples. Schoenberg is absolutely critical, but I submit that using his late-period work to discuss him with students may not be the best starting point. Cage is an order of magnitude worse.

Things are slowly getting better. The generation of college professors who go to the extreme of considering tonal elements no better than N'Sync is largely losing influence. Severe/binary atonality itself is losing a lot of currency. That's a shame, because while it's not my cup of tea either, I think the backlash is going to cause us to lose some things we'd rather keep.

Some suggestions would be to increase the amount of time spent on 19th and early-20th century chromaticism and modalism as a buffer to ease the paradigm shift, and

As a side note, I adore that you even asked the question....I wish somebody had thought to back in the day.

Kristin Wills said...

Years ago, I really didn't appreciate atonal music, because I just was not educated enough about it, I thought it was mostly just random noises. But I've definitely learned to like it over the years. I remember the first piece that definitively changed my mind about it, it was Penderecki's viola concerto. I was stunned when I first heard it, because it was clearly atonal, but beautiful at the same time. At that point, I didn't know that atonal music could sound like that, so I think that's why a lot of people say they hate it, they just haven't listened to the right pieces. Since I heard that piece, I've also learned to appreciate the atonal pieces that I hated before, because now I have a more open mind about it.