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Topic: How to listen to atonality?

  1. #1

    How to listen to atonality?

    New question!

    Last night I went to a performance of Shostakovich's #5, and I gotta say, I just don't get the whole atonal thing! Where my feelings are now is that, with no tonic center, there are never any resolutions. And also never any expectations. It seems like everywhere the piece goes is a surprise! And well, if everything is a surprise, surprises lose their value significantly. So to me, the piece feels like a disorienting, meandering bunch of nonsense.

    BUT! I might be willing to concede that I just need some practice listening to atonal stuff, and that I just am not educated enough to know what to listen for. Can anyone help me out? What is it that I'm missing?


  2. #2

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    It is an aesthetic issue.

    Maybe some analysis might help you, but mainly the thing is that you need to listen with an open head. And Schostackovich is not the perfect exmaple for atonal stuff...

    For me it just happened at one point. I did like melodic music, even if far stretched and at one point I just switched! Jusyt clikced away from tonality and into contemporary stuff. Now I'm back to tonality (more or less) and melodic stuff (agian more or less :P)

    I don't think that anyone will tell you a "short guide to listening atonal music".

    I find that Dmitri is soft enough, but maybe (to my preferences) Prokofiev is much better, and much mroe melodic, without being tonal. Try his 8th sonata for piano, for exmaple (which is my favourite). then go to scythian suite. but still they have a strong tonal center, it's just weirder than tonal music... :P

    Other than that, I don't know. 5th symphony is not my favourite... :P

    Plus atonality is banal nowadays... I mean todays composers don't write atonal, or serial music anymore, they write want they want to write... (more or less...)

    My post is named more or less

  3. #3

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by nikolas
    It is an aesthetic issue.
    And Schostackovich is not the perfect exmaple for atonal stuff...
    Do you mean because he is not atonal, or because he is atonal done badly?

  4. #4

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    I don't find a black and white distinction between tonal and atonal. Rather, it is a continuum, and some of my very favorite music lies somewhere in that gray center. Shostakovich, for example, is somewhere in there. I find the fifth symphony to actually be very tonal, compared to 6th or 15th which get fairly wild. There are certainly tonal centers in the 5th throughout.

    I don't think atonal music is "banal" at all, but serialism is. I've always believed that serialism is just a way avoid any hint of tonality at any cost. Unfortunately, the cost is often the listener's interest. I live by one simple rule... if the ear and theory disagree, the ear is correct.

    Which brings us back to your original question. How do you listen? I would perhaps take a 20th century appreciation class if at all possible. Otherwise, take a little historic tour for yourself, starting with a little late Berlioz, R. Strauss, Debussy, Mahler, and work your way through Respighi, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg. Trust me, it is well worth the trip.

    If Shostakovich's 5th was a little difficult, try Prokofiev's 5th. This is my all time favorite symphony by any composer. There is so much romanticism and lush beauty in this work that the dissonances slide down very easily.
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  5. #5

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Discussion on Shostakovich's 5th going on over on SibeliusMusic:

    // Ars longa, vita brevis
    // http://edosbear.blogspot.com/

  6. #6

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Smiley
    Do you mean because he is not atonal, or because he is atonal done badly?
    Just that he's not the perfect example for it. There are other composers who have used atonality far more and far in more depth than Shostachovich. Just that...

    And I couldn't find a better word for "banal", that's why I used it :S... sorry for that.

    And btw, I've never met any composer (at least met in person that is), who claims to write atonal, or serial music. But some ofthem do comment on writting tonal music.

    I agree on the definition of serialism, more or less... (god maybe I should change my nick to more or less...)

  7. #7

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Smiley
    Do you mean because he is not atonal, or because he is atonal done badly?

    Dear John,

    Can you please define what you mean by “Atonal” it tends to be a very vague term that people just brush on any old thing. As for Shostakovich, he is not atonal, not hardly, unless you mean by “Atonal” anything outside of I IV V I.

    // Ars longa, vita brevis
    // http://edosbear.blogspot.com/

  8. #8

    Re: How to listen to atonality?


    He has used atonal and even serial techniques at some parts of his work.

  9. #9

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Haha, I find it funny that in that Sibelius post, he cites the 5th symphony as one of "unambiguous tonality" ...

    I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that atonality meant music that has no tonal center, and I felt when I was listening to the 5th, I could almost never tell where the tonal center was. I do like chromaticism, which I understand to be music with a tonal center that moves around all the time. But for Shost. #5, I don't recall hearing too many chords I could identify by name. And no, Ed, I don't mean "atonal" to mean anything outside of I IV V I. I'm not a caveman :P.

    Yeah Skysaw, I can see how it's a completely relative thing. How atonal would you consider Rite of Spring to be? Hmm also for a gauge, how atonal would you consider La Mer to be?

  10. #10

    Re: How to listen to atonality?

    Schostakowitch's 5th symphony is about as far from "atonal" as one can get. while he may have dabbled in various non-tonal compositional techniques, he never whole-heartedly integrated them into his music.

    As a very well-respected professor of mine once said, however:
    "atonal - what does that mean? it simply means what something is NOT. it means nothing apart from that.
    Q: 'what are you writing?'
    A: 'I am not writing poetry'
    Likewise, saying that music is 'atonal' means only that it is not tonal... nothing else."

    Modal music is "not tonal" by the strictest definition. Most impressionist scores were "not tonal" by the strictest sense. "Le Sacre du Printemps" is "not tonal" by the strictest definition, however at the same time it is far from "atonal". Large parts of it can easily be analysed by key relationships.

    the word "atonal" is probably one of the most abused and misunderstood words in the musical lexicon. it is too often equated with "dissonant".


    but on to the actual question your post brought up. my own opinion is that when a composition is successful, it achieves its goal of communicating with its audience no matter what technical details may be involved in its construction. I can't say I'm the greatest fan of unrelenting dissonance in music, however, I've come to understand that people have varying degrees of comfort with said dissonance.

    exposure to those varying degrees of dissonance is what develops the ear to appreciating it.

    let me simply give an example from my own catalogue: my sister expressed her difficulty at listening to my "Symphony in C". This is a woman who is far from being musically illiterate, and from its title you can gather that my symphony is far from the most avant-garde. Yet it somehow overshot her comfort level with dissonance... it was "too modern" for her ear.

    the very same work got negative comments from an "avant-garde afficionado" with accusations of "writing movie music and pap for the masses".

    so, two sets of ears, two diametrically opposite reactions.

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