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Thread: What is the point of Atonal music?

  1. #76
    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    About dissonance. If by that word you mean "pitches within a certain distance from each other played simultaneously,
    then I suppose that has a fairly objective quality to it. Problem is, what is that certain distance? Is it a fourth? A third? A minor second? A tritone? Different cultures and different times within the same culture will return different answers to that question.

    If you mean "a tone or chord that we expect to resolve in a certain way," B to C in a C major scale, for instance, then the conditioning implied by "we expect" means that we will get different answers, too. (I no longer feel, for instance, that the sequence C, D, E, F, G, A, B is headed strongly towards one particular pitch, though I can remember a time when I did. (I may be an alien, but I became one, then. I was born right here!))

    If you mean, an unpleasant sound or (perhaps) a sound that is only pleasant if it moves quickly to another sound--a sound that if prolonged would be unpleasant, which is what Prokofiev seems to have been saying with his spice analogy (which I reject, you may imagine), then that has nothing objective to it at all.

    It all comes down, again, to individual experience. If it could somehow be agreed that it should stay there (and not be turned into some quasi-scientific conclusion about the inherently inaccessible qualities of atonal music), I think we might then lay this contentious quarrel to rest.

    R.I.P. dear quarrel.
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  2. #77
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    I'm a bit late to this thread so I have several ideas to discuss and hopefully this post won't be too disjointed. Many here have argued that for hundreds of years CM has evolved with new music being less popular and needing time for listeners to adjust and "learn" to appreciate it. On this thread there seem to be two basic views expressed relating to atonal music.

    a) Atonal music is inherently unpleasant (or less pleasant) for most CM listeners.
    b) Atonal music, like other music in the past, simply needs more exposure for CM listeners to appreciate as they do Baroque, Classical, or Romantic music. If listeners would be more open and listen, they would come to enjoy and appreciate atonal music.
    Some believe this "listening" might require more focus or work than listening to earlier CM because it makes more demands on the listener.

    I strongly suspect that Polednice is correct that the human brain "has a preference (or an ease of understanding) for sounds that are arranged to have a tonal centre." I also believe Vazgen may be correct when saying:

    Quote Originally Posted by Vazgen View Post
    But audiences have had to get used to the innovations of living composers for hundreds of years. The fact that they don't anymore is something that's better explained through the economics of the classical music industry than by appealing to the science of cognition and evolutionary biology.
    -Vaz
    some guy has pointed out that the are reasons to believe that the orchestra "preference" for older music did not begin in this century but rather the 1800's when the percentage of music by dead composers played in concerts in Paris rose to 94% by 1870.

    So, it is a question of more (and maybe proper) exposure, or is atonal music destined to appeal to vastly fewer people than other CM?

    I find this a fascinating question and personally lean toward (a) above and atonal music destined to relatively low appeal...BUT I am not at all convinced.

    There are two new points I would like to make leading to 2 questions:

    1) I have listened to an enormous amount of atonal music over the past 6 months or so. That listening has not made a significant change in my view of the music (still do not like it). I know others who have listened to atonal music and have the same response. To those who believe additional exposure is all that is needed, how much exposure do you think is necessary for the average CM listener?

    2) My daughter is a performance major in collage. She told me that in general the performance majors at her school, including her, do not appreciate atonal music. On the other hand composition majors in general find much of it beautiful. I have long felt that a good knowledge of music theory significantly increases the probability of appreciating atonal music. Is it likely that the general difficulty (complexity) of atonal music is too serious a barrier for the average listener?

  3. #78
    Senior Member Webernite's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post
    About dissonance. If by that word you mean "pitches within a certain distance from each other played simultaneously,
    then I suppose that has a fairly objective quality to it. Problem is, what is that certain distance? Is it a fourth? A third? A minor second? A tritone? Different cultures and different times within the same culture will return different answers to that question.

    If you mean "a tone or chord that we expect to resolve in a certain way," B to C in a C major scale, for instance, then the conditioning implied by "we expect" means that we will get different answers, too. (I no longer feel, for instance, that the sequence C, D, E, F, G, A, B is headed strongly towards one particular pitch, though I can remember a time when I did. (I may be an alien, but I became one, then. I was born right here!))

    If you mean, an unpleasant sound or (perhaps) a sound that is only pleasant if it moves quickly to another sound--a sound that if prolonged would be unpleasant, which is what Prokofiev seems to have been saying with his spice analogy (which I reject, you may imagine), then that has nothing objective to it at all.

    It all comes down, again, to individual experience. If it could somehow be agreed that it should stay there (and not be turned into some quasi-scientific conclusion about the inherently inaccessible qualities of atonal music), I think we might then lay this contentious quarrel to rest.

    R.I.P. dear quarrel.
    I suppose I meant that it makes heavier use of intervals that seem dissonant to the majority of classical and pop listeners, i.e. the dissonances of the common practice period.

  4. #79
    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mmsbls View Post
    To those who believe additional exposure is all that is needed, how much exposure do you think is necessary for the average CM listener?
    The conclusion I have come to after reading several threads on this topic on several boards, is that exposure is not going to work very well. Not on its own.

    The only thing that will work is a change of attitude--and how that will happen is anyone's guess!!

    But if you go into it with the idea that something is wrong with it, then "Hey presto!!" you will find something wrong with it.

    Otherwise, if you can just let the sounds and combinations of sounds be themselves, then probably you will find something of value in it. Not everything, of course. No one here, whichever stance they've taken on "atonality," likes every tonal piece ever written, either.

  5. #80
    Senior Member Webernite's Avatar
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    It's probably better to focus on one specific avant-garde composer, rather than listening at random to avant-garde music by all sorts of unrelated composers, which is what most people seem to do.
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    Senior Member crmoorhead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by norman bates View Post
    Well i'm not sure about that and maybe you're right, but i think that at least in this discussion the sense of "atonal" was intended as Schoenberg-Berg-Webern-Boulez-Babbitt etc, maybe including also free atonality with Scriabin, Decaux, Pentland, Rudhyar and similar composers. Or we were referring also to the music of Sun ra, Albert Ayler, the gamelan, Harry Partch, Ligeti, industrial music and even the blues?
    Yeah, I really don't know. I think that, strictly, atonal is anything that isn't in a key extending to all the groups and composers you mention above, but I am relatively new to musical theory. I think that the intention was restricted to highly dissonant/disjunct music rather than simply 'atonal'. If we aren't making that assumption, correctly or incorrectly, there is a much wealth of atonal music that is, IMO, much more accessible.

    I would class Ligeti and others who used finer intervals than half-tones as being atonal, but it is whether they use those scales to produce conjunct or disjunct music that matters when classifying it as 'easy to listen to'. The blues is very easy to listen to but, then again, we are used to those sounds because they have filtered through to popular culture. The blues can also be represented on the standard keyboard.

    I mentioned Debussy earlier - where does he fit? With Scriabin? I have not listened to Scriabin yet, but he sounds ideal.

    this one is more successful i think
    http://www.divshare.com/download/13072163-4e4
    This sounds great!! Really funky and full of character! I would be tempted to classify it as sounding like a muppet choir, but that seems a bit of an inadequate description. :P

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    Senior Member violadude's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by norman bates View Post
    this one is more successful i think
    http://www.divshare.com/download/13072163-4e4
    O.O Is there a way I can get a recording of this??

  8. #83
    Senior Member crmoorhead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by violadude View Post
    O.O Is there a way I can get a recording of this??
    I looked up the album it is from on Amazon:

    UK
    US (Considerably cheaper)

    It seems to be a collection of excepts from larger pieces though.

  9. #84
    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    I always get the feeling that someguy is like that geeky kid back in high-school who tried to impress everyone with the obscure slasher punk bands that he was listening to that no one else knew: "You're still listening to Pink Floyd/The Police/Depeche Mode/ fill in the blank??!! That crap is so outdated??!! I'm listening to the Electronic Fart Scribblers. The latest thing."

    There is no big mystery here... and to pretend otherwise is simply ingenuous. Atonal music is simple less popular than the alternative just as abstract paintings are less popular than figurative painting. To the average ear atonal music is less pleasing than traditional tonality... just as to the average eye abstract paintings are less pleasing than figurative art or realism. To berate someone because they dislike atonal music is as absurd as berating them because they dislike Gregorian chants or Indian ragas.

    Again, to compare the small (minute?) audience who take great pleasure in atonal music with the fact that the audience for classical music itself is small in comparison to that of popular music is another ingenuous/ingenious? argument that seems to suggest that just as only a select few "get" classical music atonalism is reserved for even a more select few. The audience who struggles with atonal music is made up of those who quite often have invested a good deal of effort into the appreciation of classical music. The fact that many simply find certain aspects of Modern/Contemporary music unpleasant is in no way surprising to me. Many of them might also be less than fond of Renaissance madrigals, Byzantine chants, Indian ragas, Japanese Shakuhachi flute, Hip-Hop, or Bluegrass.

    The fact that it is 2011 is irrelevant. Most of the listeners here haven't been around for 100 years and even if they had been, atonal music doesn't seem to have made such inroads into music that it seems in any way as "natural" as traditional tonality. Byzantine chant has been around for nearly a millennium longer than atonal music, yet I doubt it has a larger audience than Schoenberg and Webern... let alone Schubert and Mozart. Why isn't atonal music more popular? The champions of atonal music can certainly make any number of arguments about the record companies and pandering to the masses... but these always sound as if the obvious is being avoided... the fact that a great majority find atonal music unpleasant.

    Some would berate the listener who struggles with atonal music: "Where are your ears?! This stuff's been around 100 years. I loved it from the moment I first heard it". And...? Who cares??! We like what we like. And some music seems to resonate with a far larger audience than other music. If I recall correctly, Someguy himself has expressed a certain dislike for Bax, Bluegrass... and was it Jazz? Personally I think some things by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk may just outlast Cage, Ligeti, Xenakis, and Stockhausen... in spite of the fact that I actually like some things by Cage, Ligeti, and Stockhausen (I honestly haven't heard enough by Xenakis to put forth any opinion).

    I won't suggest that atonal music sucks (I quite like some of it... I even have a disc of Schoenberg and one of Webern on order!!!). But I can't see any point in expressing a phony sense of shock than some people would still find such music "difficult"... or simply dislike it. I love dark beer, but it seems that many find it to be an "acquired taste". Some don't wish to acquire this taste... and some don't wish to acquire a taste for atonal music.

    In defense of atonal music... or any music outside of the core mainstream of than which one commonly listens to... I do agree that one should avoid dismissing a body of music as a whole... or even the work of a single composer or a single work without having first listened to it and given it a fair chance. But again... some music demands a greater effort... is more of an acquired taste... and to some the effort simply isn't worth it. The pay-off in terms of pleasure simply isn't great enough.
    Last edited by StlukesguildOhio; Jun-20-2011 at 04:36.

  10. #85
    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    The conclusion I have come to after reading several threads on this topic on several boards, is that exposure is not going to work very well. Not on its own.

    The only thing that will work is a change of attitude--


    Well... you could always employ a sort of Pavlovian Behavioral Modification:


  11. #86
    Air
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    Quote Originally Posted by StlukesguildOhio View Post
    But again... some music demands a greater effort... is more of an acquired taste... and to some the effort simply isn't worth it. The pay-off in terms of pleasure simply isn't great enough.
    But in my opinion this can also be a two-way street. What if one enjoys the struggle to understand atonal music and finds significant meaning through that? Pleasure is not the only philosophy of musical enjoyment - there can be other values too. And to seek to understand what one does not yet understand rather than what one already understands, in my opinion, can lead to great spiritual and intellectual reward too. Some may call it pretentious, but really it's just a difference of values that should be respected.

    If we want to gauge the benefits of atonal music through the pleasure principle there's arguments to be made too. A little variety in the diet is one way to look at it. And variety in turn can lead to greater overarching understanding and appreciation.
    Last edited by Air; Jun-20-2011 at 04:56.
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  12. #87
    Senior Member Vazgen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Polednice View Post
    Well, unlike you it seems, I'm just not cynical enough to believe that most people will only ever like what commercial giants decide the masses should be fed. Especially in an age of globalisation and increased access to all kinds of artistic resources, I'm willing to put my faith in people to search, and discover, and learn, and share. I think I at least give people credit by saying: "you've given it a chance, but, like most people, you just don't like avant-garde music" rather than making the assumption: "you've been conditioned by powers beyond your recognition. Oh what a shame for you..."
    Come now. I never said anything about conditioning. I simply questioned the simplistic assumption you seem to make that classical music is a meritocracy where whatever's good magically gets programmed, performed, broadcast, and recorded for sale to the public. It's never been the case that audiences were automatically ready to welcome new works into the canon. Ask Schubert or Bruckner. You may choose to ignore the economic factors that have kept new and innovative music from being programmed for the better part of a century, but that hardly makes these factors go away.

    -Vaz
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  13. #88
    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy
    Can something like "profound and moving about the human condition" be said with sounds? I'm guessing no.
    Quote Originally Posted by HarpsichordConcerto View Post
    Sad. Maybe that's why avant-garde stuff ticks well with you.
    OK, Mr. Concerto, maybe you'd be up for some examples, then.

    Take Handel's Royal Fireworks Music. What profound and moving thing does that say about the human condition? Bach's Ouverture BWV 1066. Mozart's symphony no. 40. Notice I'm staying away from works with words in them.

    How about Beethoven's piano concerto no. 4? Berlioz' Harold in Italy. Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. Saint-Saens' piano concerto no. 5. Tchaikovsky's symphony no. 6. Dvorak's Noonday Witch. Stravinsky's Le Sacre. Schoenberg's Variations for orchestra.

    Pick your own examples if you want. (Anyone can play, by the way.) Take any piece without words and tell us what profound and moving thing it says about the human condition. Tone poems and ballets quite welcome, only no recourse to the programs, which are also things made out of words. Stick to the sounds only. How do the sounds these pieces make say something profound and moving about the human condition?

    Notice that what you're doing, if you actually give this a try, is using words to explain things. But if words can express something profound and moving about et cetera, then why wouldn't a composer just say something with words? Imagine yourself as a composer. You think "I have something profound and moving to say about the human condition." Now, which instruments will you use? Which key? (Perhaps a tone row will do?) Which notes will express this? Which things will be soft and which loud? How do you decide? Indeed, how will you make any musical decisions in this situation?

    Your sadness, Mr. C, is, I fear, sadly misplaced.
    Last edited by some guy; Jun-20-2011 at 10:43.
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    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by norman bates View Post
    Well i'm not sure about that and maybe you're right, but i think that at least in this discussion the sense of "atonal" was intended as Schoenberg-Berg-Webern-Boulez-Babbitt etc, maybe including also free atonality with Scriabin, Decaux, Pentland, Rudhyar and similar composers. Or we were referring also to the music of Sun ra, Albert Ayler, the gamelan, Harry Partch, Ligeti, industrial music and even the blues?
    A lot of Sun Ra is tonal. Indonesian gamelan uses pathet (modes) of the slendro and pelog scales which have tones that act as tonic and dominant, so it is a kind of non-diatonic tonality. Harry Partch was always tonal, basing his otonality(major) and utonality(minor) off of the harmonics of a single tone (the 1/1) and their inversions. Industrial music is often tonal if it features actual instruments rather than just samples and percussion. The blues is always tonal.

    I know when people think of Atonalism they think of the SVS, Darmstadt and those kind of guys, but technically any music where the pitched tones (if there are any) are not related to one single point for a period of time (see:modulation) is classed as atonal.

    Also, dissonance is an objective measurement to some extent, but the interpretation of the dissonance is always subjective. You could just as easily say most tonal music contains much dissonance because it deviates from pure intervals by temperament. Even discounting that, the main difference is the resolution of the dissonance is often lacking in atonal music. Like a movie that leaves you hanging at the end, most people like a closed ended story that seems to reward viewing.
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  15. #90
    Senior Member norman bates's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Argus View Post
    A lot of Sun Ra is tonal.
    also Schoemberg's Gurrelieder is tonal, i was clearly talking about his free stuff, things like that
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad42wQfvSy0

    Quote Originally Posted by Argus View Post
    Indonesian gamelan uses pathet (modes) of the slendro and pelog scales which have tones that act as tonic and dominant, so it is a kind of non-diatonic tonality.
    Harry Partch was always tonal, basing his otonality(major) and utonality(minor) off of the harmonics of a single tone (the 1/1) and their inversions. Industrial music is often tonal if it features actual instruments rather than just samples and percussion. The blues is always tonal.
    i don't know, in this sense also the Curran piece you've posted to me seems that plays around just one note. But then were's the difference between tonality and modality for example?
    Last edited by norman bates; Jun-20-2011 at 11:49.

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