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3 Characteristics of Atonal Music

Atonal music emerged upon the death of Classical music. Unlike Classical music, atonal music, despite being classified as a genre, does not sound as inspiring as its predecessor because it lacked a tonal or harmonious centre. Atonal music was created by Arnold Schoenberg, who declared that “tonality is no natural law of music” in his “Theory of Harmony” manifesto.

The “Theory of Harmony” was a shock to musicians who regarded tonality as an indispensable condition of music. Tonality had been the basis of Western music for more than three centuries. But some recognised what Schoenberg was saying. In fact, tonality has been breaking down for fifty years and in 1911, it reached a critical stage in which the future of tonality became doubtful.

What is Tonality?

Tonality is defined as a musical idiom where all pitches are ogranised in relation to a given central pitch, or “tonal centre”. Music lacking such as centre is known as “atonal”. Schoenberg’s contribution to music was that he provided a rigorous theoretical basis for atonality by inventing the so-called “twelve-tone” method. George Perle, a contemporary composer and theorist proclaimed the development of atonality by Schoenberg and his students represents the most far-reaching and thoroughgoing revolution the history of music has known since the beginnings of polyphony.

Boosted by accolades received for his work, Schoenberg said: “I have made a discovery that will assure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”

The Characteristics of Atonal Music

While composers of all nationalities began embracing Schoenberg’s methods, and the basic principles of atonal music composition are still employed today, the method was hardly met with much enthusiasm by music listeners.

Concertgoers continue to show their preference for music of the past and seemed only remotely interested in being exposed to atonal music. What are the characteristics of atonal music that composers love that are not getting the same appreciation by listeners?

1. No Tonal Centre

To a regular music listener, atonal music does not seem to come with a thoughtful composition. In fact, it does not sound like the musician is following any form of composition, which can be heard here if you are curious. For some, it can be edgy to listen to music without harmony. This is the key characteristic of atonal music - it does not contain a major or a minor key. No single note feels like the “root” of an atonal piece.

2. Based on the chromatic scale

The chromatic scale is a 12-note scale that involves all available pitches played in order in Western music. Each interval in the chromatic scale goes up by one half-step. Atonal compositions use all notes in the chromatic scale.

3. Loosely organised

The strictest form of atonal music composition is Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serial method. The method prescribes a specific tone row of notes that cannot be altered. On the other extreme, free atonality does not have strict compositional rules and extends endless possibilities to a composer.

We hope you learnt something interesting about atonal music and its existence in our post. If you would like to learn a musical instrument, check out our music programs at Ritmo Music Studio.

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