How Did Classical Music Become Atonal?



Many factors contributed to the death of classical music. One of the factors is the experimentation with harmony that led to the emergence of atonal music. Classical music ended with the Romantic era, which is characterised by an emphasis on originality, individuality, personal emotional expression and freedom in the expression of form. Composers in the Romantic era added chromatic notes to their chords and melodies to make their music more expressive. Whereas atonal music lacks expressiveness or any harmony in chords. How did classical music become atonal?


Atonality departs from an emphasis on harmony in music


Romantic music is most memorable for its harmonic music compositions. Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 contains chromatic notes with accompanying chords. Dissonances in classical music usually resolve to consonant chords, creating a feeling of tension and release. However, Romantic music gave way to atonal music in the early 20th century. Instead of having a harmonic centre, atonal composers developed the twelve-tone technique, first devised by Austrian composer Josef Matthias Hauer and later refined by Arnold Schoenberg.


Schoberg’s twelve-tone technique ensures that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note through the use of tone rows. All 12 notes are given equal importance and are considered a form of serialism.


What contributed to the strange death of tonal classical music?


It might sound strange why any music composer would want to depart from creating harmonic chords and compositions to embrace discordant sounds. Why did early 20th century composers kill hummable tunes and basically the composition of tonal classical music?


Alex Ross, a music critic in the New Yorker suggests composers felt that all the harmony has been used up in classical music. In short, Romanticism had lost its inventiveness. In response, musicians at the tail end of the Romantic era decided to scrap all the rules of tonal music composition to invent something new. That was the beginning of atonal music and the end of classical music.


The death of atonal music


Atonal music became contentious during the cold war. The Soviet Union was opposed to techniques developed by Western modernists, in particular atonal harmony and serialism, although it was introduced into the Soviet musical vocabulary by the 1970s.


Dissonance also found its way to operas such as Richard Strauss’ Salome. Ross argued that Strauss’ Salome drowned out Romanticism and classical rippled out to jazz, film soundtracks and television cartoons. It’s not surprising that music without a harmonic centre did not find favour with the masses.


For tonal music, we hear only seven tones on a scale. In twelve-tone music, all tones are used without repeating any tones. When a musician completes all twelve pitches, it’s known as a row, and then s/he is free to play it backwards, forward or flip it upside-down. The problem with the twelve-tone technique is that it isn’t hummable or singable. This makes twelve-tone serialism compositions hard to appreciate and signalled the death of atonal music.


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