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Thread: 12-tone harmony

  1. #1
    Junior Member demiangel's Avatar
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    Default 12-tone harmony

    I may be a hopeless amateur when it comes to composing, but how exactly are harmonies supposed to work for 12-tone music? The way I've been doing it tends to put emphasis on the root notes of a chord or dyad, and in doing this sort of establishes a sense of tonality instead of making atonal music. Anyways, I use chords, so if I use C-E-G-A in a chord, that would mean that I do not use those notes again. However, I find that it sounds good to write multiple melodies which only use the notes of the chord, but this is not atonal because i might play a melody that goes:

    G A E C
    and at the same time, play
    C G A E
    on another intstrument, and of course this is repeating notes. Of course, I think this sounds good, so I'm not too worried, and tends to create a sense of order coming out of chaos, which in atonal music wouldn't be there...

    So in atonal music, when I try to not repeat notes I'm constricted harmonically to using only the chord C-E-G-A and having another instrument do a single arpeggio of it, with no more complex harmonies, because they aren't allowed, correct? Or is even an arpeggio of the chord not allowed?
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    A very common mistake is for people to mix-up 'atonal' and '12-tone' music. They are not the same. In fact the term 'atonal' is something of a misnomer as 'atonal' means "without tones" (ie without any sound). The correct term should be 'non-tonal' (I wish someone would make this term popular). 'Atonal' music is that without any reference to a tonal/key centre.

    '12-tone' music (dodecaphony) has its own very strict structure. Although, in common with 'atonal' music, '12-tone' music does away with tonality and the key system, it replaces it with its own very rigorous set of rules. Here, you have to use each of the 12 notes within the chromatic octave without repeating any of them or inferring any tonal centre. One you have formed this 'tone row', you can then use it backwards (retrograde), upside down (inversion - one uses the same intervals between notes, only in the opposite direction) and upside down and backwards (retrograde inversion). Your harmonies should then derive from these rows of notes. However, this process is very complex and you would do well to read-up on this subject through articles and books by people such as Arnold Schoenberg (the inventor of the '12-tone' system) and Reginald Smith Brindle (Serial Composition, 1966).
    Last edited by Delicious Manager; Oct-13-2010 at 16:40.

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    Senior Member Ukko's Avatar
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    The impression I get from Demiangel's post is that she is working with chromatic octaves, not '12 tone' in the formal sense. The result may sound more like condensed Wagner than any 20th C. school.


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    Senior Member Rasa's Avatar
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    So if I summarize this right, you're trying to write atonal harmony?

    Good luck.

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    Senior Member Edward Elgar's Avatar
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    12 tone music is very much out of fashion. It's a system that's over 100 years old. You will more likely find your true voice in free composition.

    12 tone music doesn't always follow the rules. In terms of harmony, the 12 toners would saturate their music with similar intervals, just like the Classicalists saturated their work with thirds and fifths. However, many of the chords were crunchy and dissonant and because they transposed unpredictably (via the tone row), nobody liked it.

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    Senior Member Frasier's Avatar
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    ^^^ I agree. The only way to consider harmony and orchestration is to study proponents of the technique, particularly Webern. The danger, then, is to avoid what Webern led into... total serialism - which sowed the seeds of its own death.

    Simply i) the initial selection of thematic material predetermines the entire composition - yup, the rules ARE strict to do it properly - ii) it all sounds like merely random sounds (which makes composition hardly worth the effort) but more to the point: iii) it tends to produce the effect of tonal centres, defeating the object of the thing. How? Consider the range of durations available. Going harmonically between say a demisemiquaver (64th note) and a breve yields only 7 durations (Breve, semibreve, crotchet, quaver etc, halving each time) then the longest duration is 64 times the shortest. It will just take a loud breve to mislead a listener into registering a tonal centre. Of course, other ranges than doubling/halving are possible but care is then needed to preserve differentiation.

    So yes, devise your own system. A tone-row doesn't have to be just twelve notes... in fact, any melody is a tone-row, just not a twelve tone one!

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    Junior Member demiangel's Avatar
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    iii) it tends to produce the effect of tonal centres, defeating the object of the thing. How? Consider the range of durations available. Going harmonically between say a demisemiquaver (64th note) and a breve yields only 7 durations (Breve, semibreve, crotchet, quaver etc, halving each time) then the longest duration is 64 times the shortest.

    See, that's the thing, when I create a tone-row, certain notes always get emphasized for various reasons. And what I must ask is: Why not? Isn't this a perfectly valid way of composing? While I don't think that the whole "pantonal" idea of Schoenberg was arbitrary, meaning, I do think there was something to it, and I do enjoy some of Schoenberg and especially Webern...

    HOWEVER, I don't see why I shouldn't emphasize certain notes, if I wish to compose this way. In other words, use all twelve notes, emphasizing certain ones as I see fit.

    On another note, I've started reading Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony and have gained a lot of knowledge about _tonal_ harmony from reading Schoenberg's theory of harmony. Makes me want to go to school for music.
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    Senior Member Comus's Avatar
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    Demiangel, you should be studying the works of Alban Berg if you are not already doing so.

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    Senior Member Edward Elgar's Avatar
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    Or Berio, or Boulez. They expanded and loosened up the language of the 12 toners.
    When all the paint has been dried, when all the stone has been carved, music shall remain, and we shall work with what remains.

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    Senior Member Frasier's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by demiangel View Post
    iii) it tends to produce the effect of tonal centres, defeating the object of the thing. How? Consider the range of durations available. Going harmonically between say a demisemiquaver (64th note) and a breve yields only 7 durations (Breve, semibreve, crotchet, quaver etc, halving each time) then the longest duration is 64 times the shortest.

    See, that's the thing, when I create a tone-row, certain notes always get emphasized for various reasons. And what I must ask is: Why not? Isn't this a perfectly valid way of composing?
    No reason at all why you shouldn't do that.

    One of the problems of "music theory" regardless whether CPP or serial is that too much attention to it can constrict a composer - kill creativity wouldn't be too harsh a verdict at times!
    Ideally you need enough theory to help you control what you're doing to achieve your aim. It's a set of tools, that's all.
    As Comus says, a study (even a listen to) some of Berg's work - I'd suggest the musical dramas, Lulu or Wozzeck). He not only blends little bits of diatonic music into Lulu but the strict serial portions often sound surreally tonal inasmuch as they meet some of the semantics of tonal music but in a quickly shifting way, or suddenly get thrown off to another vaguely tonal-sounding sequence. Listen to the Lulu hymn from the last act (sung by Countess Geschwitz). It's gut-wrenching to me, extraordinarily beautiful....but it's serial.

    So...proceed just as you want. Use rules as long as they serve you. If you suddenly hit upon a super sound by accident while playing through, use it!

    While I don't think that the whole "pantonal" idea of Schoenberg was arbitrary, meaning, I do think there was something to it, and I do enjoy some of Schoenberg and especially Webern...

    HOWEVER, I don't see why I shouldn't emphasize certain notes, if I wish to compose this way. In other words, use all twelve notes, emphasizing certain ones as I see fit.
    Absolutely right.
    And...good luck.

  11. #11
    Senior Member Romantic Geek's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Frasier View Post
    No reason at all why you shouldn't do that.

    One of the problems of "music theory" regardless whether CPP or serial is that too much attention to it can constrict a composer - kill creativity wouldn't be too harsh a verdict at times!
    Ideally you need enough theory to help you control what you're doing to achieve your aim. It's a set of tools, that's all.
    How dare you use theory's name in vain?! Any composer that finds theory to constrict oneself is incredibly unimaginative. As a theorist-composer myself, learning all the "rules" from 16th-century to the 21st only make it easier to be more imaginative. Theory is not a set of tools. Theory never comes pre-creation. Theory has and always will be post-creation, so no matter what is created, there will be some theory that will describe it in due-time. If anything, theory is constricted to the composer, not vice versa.
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