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Thread: What is the point of Atonal music?

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    Senior Member Sofronitsky's Avatar
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    Default What is the point of Atonal music?

    (Okay, I'm pretty sure alot of people are scoffing at the title of this thread. )

    Since almost the very beginning of my introduction to classical music (A few years ago, though it practically consumes my life now), I have been aware of atonal composers and few of their works. Studying composition myself, I have always been told by teachers and professors that Atonal music or near atonal music (sorry I don't have a better term for this genre) is the only way to push forward with music.

    I have made an effort on a few occasions to really listen to atonal music and witness the superior range of expression contemporary composers claim it has. In general, I find most of what I listened to is just kind of terrifying and sometimes annoying. For instance, in Nono's piano concerto, I was either finding humor in how random some moments were, or being terrified by the sounds I was hearing. There is such a focus on this genre of music with musicians and composers now that I just don't understand.

    Classical music is dying, and composers are writing this.

    I understand that composers are always supposed to push the limits and find their own voice in their writing, but if that Sciarrino piece represents the new voice of music, who will want to listen to it? It's true that good music should stimulate and challenge it's audience, but how challenging should it be to enjoy an artist's expression? In all of the different phases and evolutions of classical music, ours is certainly the age of challenged listeners.

    I could write more, but I don't want to drag this out into a huge essay. I guess my questions to those that enjoy (and perhaps also compose!) atonal muisc would be: Have you ever heard an atonal work that expressed joy, or another emotion other than sorrow or violence, that you could relate to? Do you feel strongly enough about the music to suggest that a friend should listen to it? What is the point of writing without tonality?

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    I think youre looking at it from the wrong paradigm. It isnt romantic music. Atonal music is not often written with the purpose of expressing emotions. When you hear terror and fear it is because you are listening to it as is you are listening to tonal music.

    Go and see a modern masterpiece in concert, for example - Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre. Just go and experience it. Tonality is just a way of organising pitches, composers have developed new ways of organising sounds and no longer is tone the dominant parameter. I think if you go to and hear the music in person you may feel that these new methods do work and you may be moved.
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sofronitsky View Post

    ... that Sciarrino piece represents the new voice of music, who will want to listen to it? It's true that good music should stimulate and challenge it's audience, but how challenging should it be to enjoy an artist's expression? In all of the different phases and evolutions of classical music, ours is certainly the age of challenged listeners.
    Challenged in a different way, not the same type of challenge you find from tonal masterpieces. The piece you posted sounded very energetic judging by the sound produced. The first few seconds I thought the pianist was performing that by banging his head on the keyboard, not by using his hands/fingers.

    But at the end of the day, even if the pianist was performing it by banging his head on the keyboard, so what? What did it achieve?
    Last edited by HarpsichordConcerto; Jun-19-2011 at 13:04.
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    Quote Originally Posted by emiellucifuge View Post
    I think youre looking at it from the wrong paradigm. It isnt romantic music. Atonal music is not often written with the purpose of expressing emotions. When you hear terror and fear it is because you are listening to it as is you are listening to tonal music.
    That's probably true. However, I think atonal music can be especially hard to fathom because if you look at the entire history of music, never before has music been written without the intent of drawing out some emotion in the listener. Medieval chant was composed to elevate the listeners to a higher spiritual state. Classical composers aimed to make their listeners happy with pleasant and sweet-sounding melodies. Romantic composers were probably the most successful at conveying tragic emotions. And of course, pop music is all about instilling some sort of definite emotional state.

    But now, modern composers are creating something completely different, not even related to emotion. And frankly, many of us aren't certain if this type of music can be successful or not. If you're not supposed to feel anything, then what is the listener supposed to do?

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    Music can be used politically.
    Music can be paint a picture.
    Music can speak to the fundamentals of your subconscious.
    Music can reveal principles of nature and philosophical ideas.
    Etc...

    Tonality seems capable only of appealing to the emotional part of your brain (you could say 'the heart'). If you want to reach other goals with the music such as those I listed above then tonality might not be the best method.
    If you listen to music in order to e filled with emotions then stick to tonality.
    I sometimes want to stand in awe at the power of the forces of nature, to be frightened by what is revealed in my mind, realise the futility of life, realise that life is full of meaning etc... Some of these things are done better without tonality.
    "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." - Rousseau

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    It's matter of what kind of people are making music today and for who they are making it, that's the fundament of music history. In romantic era music was written by romantics for other romantics (in original meaning of this word) so it was all great. Now the music is made by uninteresting people who could as well work as some boring officials in tax office for other boring people who, at the other hand, have some intellectual potential and can enjoy intellectually challenging music like produced today. They're still all boring geezers though, so is the music they produce.

    Individuals that would rise to greatness in XIXth century because of their romantic spirit remain unknown today since they can't find a place for themselves in era of tax office workers writing music without any greater inspiration, just like romantic era buried a lot of intellectual yet little inspired composers who are now forgotten.

    So the question you have to ask yourself is 'where do I belong'? Could you stand working in tax office? No? Then don't force yourself to listen to clerk's music.

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    Senior Member Vazgen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ravellian View Post
    But now, modern composers are creating something completely different, not even related to emotion. And frankly, many of us aren't certain if this type of music can be successful or not. If you're not supposed to feel anything, then what is the listener supposed to do?
    I don't know where you got the idea that you're not supposed to feel anything. Certainly you're not supposed to feel the same thing you feel when you listen to your old familiar favorites, but that's not to say it's supposed to be emotionally null.

    I'd say the range of emotions in an accomplished atonal work may just be too complex for passive listening. If you're going to dismiss it as pointless and sterile just because it doesn't evoke the same exact emotions, in the same exact way, that your favorite old composers did, then maybe you're not meeting atonal composers on their own terms. And that's your prerogative, but it's not their fault.

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    I think losing tonality is often just that - a loss. I believe whatever it is that composers are trying to do by dismissing tonality might be better done with a format other than music. Indeed that is what many think it is: non-music. I do occasionally love dissonance (which I admit is not quite the same thing as atonality), but without some tonality there can be no dissonance, only annoyance. That Sciarrino piece is annoying to me. For those who do like it, do you also cover your partner in sandpaper to make love?

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    I'm with all the musical conservatives on this one.

    The most important distinction for me is that tonal music was never consciously tonal (at least not until the late Romantic period onwards) - it was like that because of tradition; because hundreds of years of musical practice had led to a set of rules (malleable ones, but rules nonetheless) that arguably came about (and there are convincing arguments for this) because a sense of tonality is exactly what the human brain most readily comprehends (and therefore enjoys).

    Atonality, on the other hand, has always been a deliberate artifice - an intellectual exercise in challenging the idea that there are, or should be, any rules in music. There's the implicit suggestion that the brain has no artistic predispositions and that anything goes so long as the audience is willing to try to understand it. Personally, I think this is a challenge that has failed, and the continuing hold of atonality is a form of academic prejudice.

    [Of course, I'm all for anyone composing in any style they choose, but this persistent notion that you can't be taken seriously if you compose in a pre-atonal manner is just ridiculous.]

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    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    Err, most tonal music is rubbish, so why should atonal music be any different?

    Like any kind of music there is stuff I like and stuff I don't. I can say I don't like most Rihm or Lachenmann but similarly I don't like most Wagner or Haydn. I'm not a fan of the kind of music most serialists produce, I can safely say that, but I also dislike opera and the majority of opera is tonal. There's more to music than just the vertical organisation of the sounds.

    Another gripe I have is lots of peoples conception that 'tonality' is a singular system. It is not only the old diatonic method but any system where pitch is organised and related around a single tone. There are composers who are still making a tonal kind of music, it's just that it isn't the readily recognisable major/minor type that people are used to.

    So basically the point of atonal music is the same as the point of tonal music; the composer creates what he likes.
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    Senior Member Vazgen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Polednice View Post
    because hundreds of years of musical practice had led to a set of rules (malleable ones, but rules nonetheless) that arguably came about (and there are convincing arguments for this) because a sense of tonality is exactly what the human brain most readily comprehends (and therefore enjoys).
    I think we enjoy it because we've had hundreds of years to listen to, get used to, and respond to music composed in familiar forms. We're bombarded with tonal music in pop songs and movie soundtracks, and familiar with enough Beethoven and Mozart to use their music as background noise for whatever else we happen to be doing.

    -Vaz
    Last edited by Vazgen; Jun-19-2011 at 16:08.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Argus View Post

    So basically the point of atonal music is the same as the point of tonal music; the composer creates what he likes.
    May I assume that there is an emphasis here on the 'he'? In that case the composer is not attempting to communicate anything. The composition is for his own enjoyment/edification. So... why bother to get the music published, or even heard?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Vazgen View Post
    I think we enjoys it because we've had hundreds of years to listen to, get used to, and respond to music composed in familiar forms. We're bombarded with tonal music in pop songs and movie soundtracks, and familiar with enough Beethoven and Mozart to use their music as background noise for whatever else we happen to be doing.

    -Vaz
    I certainly don't deny that. I should probably elaborate that when I say 'tonality', I don't mean Western classical tonality alone. Recent research into evolutionary musicology has helped show that, while music all over the globe sounds to be based on different fundamentals in each different place, there are certain universals - and these come about through thousands of years of evolution and natural selection; not cultural exposure - one of which is a preference (or an ease of understanding) for sounds that are arranged to have a tonal centre. As Argus said above, this doesn't have to be diatonic tonality, but tonality it is nonetheless.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Vazgen View Post
    I don't know where you got the idea that you're not supposed to feel anything. Certainly you're not supposed to feel the same thing you feel when you listen to your old familiar favorites, but that's not to say it's supposed to be emotionally null.

    I'd say the range of emotions in an accomplished atonal work may just be too complex for passive listening. If you're going to dismiss it as pointless and sterile just because it doesn't evoke the same exact emotions, in the same exact way, that your favorite old composers did, then maybe you're not meeting atonal composers on their own terms. And that's your prerogative, but it's not their fault.
    I'm not dismissing it as pointless and sterile. I'm simply saying that, when I try to listen, I don't know how to react. I don't know what to listen for. It sounds completely alien to my ears because it is so far removed from how people have felt music should sound like over the last thousand years, and therefore, I can't feel anything.

    Now, is this a good thing, that it's so 'different' and 'alien'? Does this equal 'progress'? I have yet to decide.

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