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Topic: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

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  1. #1

    Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Okay, I know that atonality is pretty big nowadays with composers. I just don't really get it. I don't exactly enjoy listening to total chromaticism, and I don't think that the common listen/concert-attendee does, either. I understand that we compose music to express ourselves, but if no one listens to it, why should we do it? It seems like this is a reason as to why most concerts are of 19th century music. I just don't really understand why one chooses to compose atonally when one can simply compose tonally. Can anyone shed some light on this? I'm sort of confused about it.

  2. #2
    Senior Member bigears's Avatar
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    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Brother, you just opened a can of worms.......don't get me wrong, it's a great question you are asking, it's just that it will provoke a lot of responses like in this previous thread:

    http://www.northernsounds.com/forum/...t=48083&page=3


    remember the greatest 12 tone hits of all time?

    http://www.therestisnoise.com/files/...ese_school.mp3

  3. #3

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    As with many other things, I guess you can learn to like it by just listening to it and learning what methods were used creating it.

    One way might be to backtrack to those composers who started the whole thing so you can make it clear to yourself how it has evolved originally, until this day. It's not always easiest to start with the current, since it has been through many phases.

    Also, just like in any genre, there is also bad atonal music, lots of it. So if you try to understand the music, make sure you start with someone who actually had some idea when he/she wrote the music. I see many composers who just write modern music without any idea of what they're actually doing.

    If you start working on some particular piece, find out about it what style the composer used while writing it and learn the technique. While studying the piece, maybe you can even try writing one yourself, some small rehearsal, just to get a grip of the technique involved and this way understand better what's happening in the piece.

    Then also, remember to follow what you want to write yourself. If atonal isn't your thing, you don't have to write it just because many others do. There's much to be done in tonal composing too, especially since nowadays sound has become so important in music and you can create sounds that were never before possible and combine whatever ensembles you wish.

    Even if they say "everything's been done in terms of tonal music" (can't remember who it was who said it somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century), that's not true anymore, because -sound has become almost as important as the instruments. You can put together a very interesting composition from very few and very simple tonal elements by using unique sounds or unique combinations of familiar sounds. Take indie pop for example - you have singers who very often have a very distinguishable voice (funny, out of tune, sharp, weird...), pop band instruments but then also string quartet, often some "funny" brass arrangements on top of it, 80's synths and it all works together in perfect harmony (or out-of-tune harmony) - assuming you like indie pop. Since tonal music has evolved quite far in what it can be in terms of tonality, it's come time now to develop it sound-wise and that's a whole new area (well, it is kinda also what a music producer does, but if you're into that... - I am!!!).

    I got a bit off-track, but anyway, don't think you couldn't be a modern composer by writing tonal music. I'm writing this because I'm a very tonal composer myself. This makes sense especially in commercial music and also film - in these genres it's often (not saying always) tonal music that we hear. This is probably because regular non-musician people have great difficulties understanding atonal music (even many musicians have).

    I probably didn't answer your question on how to understand it, but there are many people here who can answer that better.

  4. #4
    Senior Member rwayland's Avatar
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    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Well, I think there are two important points for a beginning.

    Atonal music does not imply serial music.

    Atonal music does not particularly imply sharp dissonance.


    Both may be included, but neither is a requirement or essential!!!

    There is a good example in West Side Story, but I have forgotten the details.

    Richard

  5. #5

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    rwayland's comments are dead on.

    I just looked at your Profile and see that you are 15. When you get some more music history (especially late 19th & early 20th century) under your belt, it might make more sense.

    Here's the usual explanation of why atonality developed.

    Western classical composers usually don't like to write music that sounds just like everyone else (and especially not like the previous generation of composers). They want to be unique and have their own "voice".

    Throughout the 19th century, one of the ways they did this was to make the harmony more and more complex, and to wander further and further away from the main key, for longer and longer periods of time.

    By the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, things got so complex (listen to very late Strauss or Mahler) that it was a very small step to abandon the idea of a key altogether.

    Some composers loved this and took it even further. Others didn't like it and invented their own approach to tonality. This is still going on.

    The good news is that we are living in an age of pluralism: There are more styles and approaches to classical music going on at the same time than ever before. Anyone who tells you that you HAVE to write in a certain style is wrong. Unless it's your college prof and you're going to get a grade on it.

    I love atonal music, but that doesn't mean you have to. The best way to understand music is to keep an open mind and listen to lots of it. Sites like last.fm and www.pandora.com make it easy, and it's fun!
    "An artist is someone who produces things that people don't need to have, but that he - for some reason - thinks it would be a good idea to give them."

    - Andy Warhol

  6. #6

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Cransworth, I really admire the directness of the question you posted.

    As usual on this Forum, you've gotten some very interesting responses, and I imagine you've appreciated them.

    I want to add that while not a perfect analogy, there is still an analogy to be made between tonal vs. atonal music and representational vs. abstract art.

    Asking why composers would be moved to compose "atonally," outside of the traditional Western theories of music, is really the same as asking why a painter should want to paint abstractly instead of in representational forms where what the subject of a painting is perfectly obvious.

    --I think it's safe to say that abstract art has become more accepted by the general public than abstract music. But I think it's not too difficult to see that for many painters, it just isn't very interesting to them to paint photographically, to repeat what has already been done so masterfully in past centuries.

    I suggest its much the same for modern composers. Why compose something that ends up sounding like Beethoven when the Master has already done it, and done it better than anyone else could hope to. A composer may want to ask himself, why not compose something which doesn't obey the classically accepted rules, something which I can make more uniquely my own?

    ---However we'd probably also have to say that a lot of music remains unheard and unappreciated because the general public can find it so "experimental." Writing pieces that can sound like totally random and even computer generated collisions, accidents, can become a very Ivory Tower occupation. In every field there are snobby people creating things that only fellow snobs in their own field can have any interest in--and one has to wonder why they bother. So it's not as if someone is automatically on an interesting path just because they compose "atonal" music.

    For myself, I guess perhaps its my compromise between "complete artistic freedom" and "commerciality"--when it comes to what I write. I prefer Chromaticism, and find that this element alone makes many people find my music "difficult"--a description I like--but what they mean is that what I write sounds like it's going to be more predictable than it ends up being, because it obeys many classic rules--but then it tricks them. It's not Diatonic like the pop music they expect it to be.

    - And also, like everyone else, I'm only writing to the extent of my ability--and like anyone, my abilities always need improving. I do the best I can. I don't feel obligated to remain strictly 'classical' or strictly 'modern.' I do what Joseph Campbell suggested - I follow my bliss.

    And so on.

    There's a lot of exciting music to hear which is beyond what many musicians find tired and predictable--the classically oriented Western theory grounded music. I am sure your music horizons and tastes will expand as time goes on. You'll end up finding that there is no Black and White when it comes to music, or any Art. And you'll probably find that the most enjoyable music are the pieces that break the rules cleverly--the composer demonstrates that he knows the rules, then bends them so his/her music takes the listener to a new place, regardless of how "tonally" or "atonally" he accomplishes that.

    Really nice thread.

    Randy B.

  7. #7

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Cransworth View Post
    Okay, I know that atonality is pretty big nowadays with composers. I just don't really get it. I don't exactly enjoy listening to total chromaticism, and I don't think that the common listen/concert-attendee does, either. I understand that we compose music to express ourselves, but if no one listens to it, why should we do it? It seems like this is a reason as to why most concerts are of 19th century music. I just don't really understand why one chooses to compose atonally when one can simply compose tonally. Can anyone shed some light on this? I'm sort of confused about it.
    Speaking from personal experience. I like "atonal" music.

    The atonal term will bring problems, if I understand what you mean actually. Contemporary music would be a better term.

    Everyone is different. Some like fat women, some like men, some like sluts (excuse me), some like blondes, redhair, etc... Why go for the same type? Some even like goth, or bald, or whatever you may imagine. Nothing is bad, nothing is wrong.

    Audiences, exactly like the composer, can be trained to listen. Not in an academic sense, not in a formal way, but still audiences must show interest in order to enjoy things more.

    When you were born you were probably pleased with twinkle twinkle little star. Later on you enjoyed a bit more pop, or something, and finally went into the classical world. In other words you changed your listening habits and your aesthetics because you changed yourself. There's much more changing you will do, no matter your age. I'm changing constantly.

    Your self said 'fact' that "no one listens to it", is rather far from the truth also.

  8. #8

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Cransworth View Post
    Okay, I know that atonality is pretty big nowadays with composers. I just don't really get it. I don't exactly enjoy listening to total chromaticism, and I don't think that the common listen/concert-attendee does, either. I understand that we compose music to express ourselves, but if no one listens to it, why should we do it? It seems like this is a reason as to why most concerts are of 19th century music. I just don't really understand why one chooses to compose atonally when one can simply compose tonally. Can anyone shed some light on this? I'm sort of confused about it.
    First, I see chromaticism as a world apart from strict atonality. There is often a very strong, functional, harmonic undercurrent in chromaticism, i.e., often one dominant chord melts into another in ways that may be evaluated in a given harmonic context; however, the key center is often continually shifting, yet eventually arriving at some sort of actual cadence. Atonality, esp. strict serialism, is routinely devoid of even temporary harmonic considerations. One may try to form the various cells into fragments of dominant chords as best one can, but the result is nothing like the free-flowing, searching chromaticism that preceded Arnold Schoenberg.

    Perhaps without realizing it, you have gone directly to the matter at hand: how can atonality be used as a reliable means of expression. Some would argue that it can't, others that it is good for expressing certain things (chaos for example), but is quite unsuited for many others tasks.

    To my mind, the most successful applications of atonality to date routinely have either a libretto or a strong accompanying narrative, e.g., a ballet, opera, or a perhaps a short, specific tone poem. It is actually the libretto or narrative that gives these works their "meaning", not the music per se, allowing the composer free rein to attempt to parallel that meaning musically (in what was once considered a new and original way) through various atonal techniques. Even at the time, these attempts were only occasionally successful and often not.

    The typical university-level composition program apparently still has a penchant for decidedly cerebral techniques like serialism, perhaps simply because they can be both taught (use 12 tones in a row) and graded (did you use 12 tones in a row?), while it is difficult if not impossible to teach and grade things like creativity, meaningful expression, balance, and taste.

  9. #9

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Why choose atonality? Strictly speaking atonality merely means a lack of an immediate tonal center. It's just another tool. Bach and Mozart both composed 12 tone atonal sections in their music. Mozart in the Commandatore scene of Don Giovanni. Off the top of my head I can't cite the Bach example, it would call for research I don't have the time for right now, but it does exist. As you stretch your ears with the music of late Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, your appreciation of the wider circle of tonality can increase. Best wishes, Earl

  10. #10

    Re: Atonality - Can anyone help me understand this?

    Quote Originally Posted by rwayland View Post
    Atonal music does not imply serial music.

    Atonal music does not particularly imply sharp dissonance.
    Quite right! It is very possible to write pleasing, lyrical atonal music, just as it is possible to write horrid, unlistenable tonal music. It really depends on the skill and intent of the composer.
    Best Regards,
    Ernie

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