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Thread: Does atonal music really exist?

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    Senior Member Albert7's Avatar
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    Default Does atonal music really exist?

    For me, the only truly atonal music are Cage's 4' 33" and field recordings like Lopez where there is no true tonal center. Everything else for me is tonal in basis.

    So isn't atonality a more complex form of tonality with mathematical strictures?

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    I feel that the difference between "extended tonality" and "free atonality" is just a matter of degree. Serialism on the other hand seems to be radically different way of composing from what came before. But I'm not an expert.
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    Senior Member Baregrass's Avatar
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    I would say that there is no such thing as atonality as every sound have its particular tone but, maybe free tone or a dissonant tone would be a way of putting it. Like a flatted 9th chord.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    I feel that the difference between "extended tonality" and "free atonality" is just a matter of degree. Serialism on the other hand seems to be radically different way of composing from what came before. But I'm not an expert.
    I don't think most people can tell the difference between a "free atonal" piece such as this:



    And a serial piece such as this:



    Of course, the tonal centers generated by the pitches used in a work may be subverted and left unresolved by the composer (as can be found in tonal pieces ending on the dominant, for example), but from my perspective what's different about the music of the 20th century is that it takes away tonal functionality or downplays it to the point of irrelevance, and this is true of just about every composer from Debussy to Stravinsky to Britten as well as so-called atonal music.

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    Okay quick quiz:

    tonal or atonal?


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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Might make an interesting TC game, "Serial or free atonal?"
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    dogen
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    OK being a bear of small brain, tonal, atonal and serial mean nothing to me. I've read their definitions in the past (which I've currently forgotten!) but when I listen to music I can't say I'd be capable of distinguishing between them. I'd suspect this is just my ignorance/stupidity/deafness EXCEPT reading around this on this forum it doesn't seem blindingly obvious to others as well...

    What's the lowdown guys? Is it "real" or subjective dependent on culture?
    Or am I just talking rubbish?

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    It's a term that allows us to group pieces of music with similar characteristics. 'Atonal' music is no more 'atonal' than Baroque music is baroque, or Romantic music is romantic; its just a guide to its primary characteristics. Sure you can find implications of tonal centres in Berg's Violin Concerto (among other pieces), but that doesn't stop it being primarily serial in organisation. Tonal music is organised in a specific hierarchy, and this hierarchy influences the way that the music is heard. Atonal music is not heard in the same way - it just doesn't create the same expectations which are created in tonal music. And its because the music is not primarily guided by these tonal expectations that its called atonal.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako
    It's a term that allows us to group pieces of music with similar characteristics. 'Atonal' music is no more 'atonal' than Baroque music is baroque, or Romantic music is romantic; its just a guide to its primary characteristics.
    The problem is there are just about no characteristics which you can find linking the methods or the result between say, Xenakis and Sessions, yet both are referred to as "atonal".

    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako View Post
    And its because the music is not primarily guided by these tonal expectations that its called atonal.
    It's not nearly so simple. There is a good deal of music in this world, in fact the vast majority of it, that does not rely on tonal expectations of hierarchical relationships, but no one does or would call atonal. Modal music, or music that uses some form of modal organization, seems far more prevalent.

    The question is not whether the music called atonal is tonal in a common practice sense (I don't think you'll find many who will argue this except for very specific and cherry-picked examples), but whether it is somehow different from all other music in the history of the universe anywhere.

    So-called atonal music is not distinguished by any lack of centricity, but by its consistent deployment of the chromatic scale.

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    The problem is there are just about no characteristics which you can find linking the methods or the result between say, Xenakis and Sessions, yet both are referred to as "atonal".
    There is music which is called tonal, for example North Indian ragas and Beethoven, which has precious little in common apart from the fact that it is tonal. That is, they both evince a hierarchy of musical tones, even if the ordering of the hierarchy is different. This hierarchy is, in limited ways, measurable in listeners.

    I might be wrong, but Xenakis and Sessions may have in common precisely the fact that they are atonal, i.e. that they do not create a hierarchy. If not, then the term is misapplied.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    It's not nearly so simple. There is a good deal of music in this world, in fact the vast majority of it, that does not rely on tonal expectations of hierarchical relationships, but no one does or would call atonal. Modal music, or music that uses some form of modal organization, seems far more prevalent.

    The question is not whether the music called atonal is tonal in a common practice sense (I don't think you'll find many who will argue this except for very specific and cherry-picked examples), but whether it is somehow different from all other music in the history of the universe anywhere.
    If those types of music don't have hierarchies, then they're atonal. Just because the term is usually applied to a specific repertoire doesn't mean it doesn't that it applies no where else in the history of the universe. This admittedly contradicts the spirit of my previous post, however I came back on here to edit it, but since its been quoted I might as well leave it

    Also, modal music is tonal in this sense - it does create a hierarchy. It just happens to be not the same as that of 18th and 19th century (German-speaking?) Europe. I think this is the most useful sense of the word, and there is some good empirical research on the perception of tonality understood in this way (admittedly somewhat common-practice-centred).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako View Post
    I might be wrong, but Xenakis and Sessions may have in common precisely the fact that they are atonal, i.e. that they do not create a hierarchy. If not, then the term is misapplied.
    Exactly.

    Completely non-hierarchical music, as is implied by the term atonal, does not exist, never will, and never has, outside of music constructed without tones.

    Any music that rests on the basis of organization, whether serial, tonal, modal, or anything else, will generate centricity and hierarchy by means of emphasis and repetition.

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Completely non-hierarchical music, as is implied by the term atonal, does not exist, never will, and never has, outside of music constructed without tones.

    Any music that rests on the basis of organization, whether serial, tonal, modal, or anything else, will generate centricity and hierarchy by means of emphasis and repetition.
    We refer to space as a vacuum, not because it is literally empty - far from it, it has numerous things going on in it - but because it is effectively so. As far as I can tell this isn't about the characteristics of the music itself but the way terms are used, a much less interesting (to me) question. It seems you don't dispute that the primary means of organisation in atonal music is not tonal. We frequently label things by their dominant modes. Again, we generally call Western societies democratic even though there are many central non-democratic elements to it (e.g. the legal system, even the political system's democratic aspect is frankly pretty limited). Similarly atonal music is atonal, even though there are non-atonal elements to it (indeed, its organisation runs contrary to our tendency to understand it).

    I have no intention to further argue over what degree of pedantry/care we should exercise in our use of language. More interestingly, however, while I was checking I haven't been talking total garbage in this thread, I came across the following interesting result from Krumhansl's Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch (1990) on a (somewhat limited) study of Schoenberg's serial music. Listeners to this music attempted to understand it from a tonal point of view (as this is the usual approach) but problems were encountered. Listeners do have tonal expectations at individual points of the music, but these expectations are actually quite contrary from what, music-theoretically, is implied by the music at that stage according to tonal criteria. In her conclusion: "In particular, a basic mismatch may exist between this style's treatment of all 12 chromatic scale pitches equally, and the psychological tendency to relate all pitches to a few stable and unchanging reference pitches".

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    Senior Member arpeggio's Avatar
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    Default Bernstein on Schoenberg

    It seems this issue has been addressed in other threads. For example: The anti-modernists have some points
    It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious. And I am a very ingenious fellow

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    Quote Originally Posted by arpeggio View Post
    It seems this issue has been addressed in other threads. For example: The anti-modernists have some points
    Yes but that thread is all wrapped up in emotional gut reactions to "atonal" music; here we are looking for a more scientific, nuanced view of the situation.

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    I've looked the terms up and they seem to involve psychological aspects (perception, expectation) so that I can't help but think such aspects (as well as societal/cultural) must muddy any attempts to 100% delineate the terminilogy?
    Are such terms globally applicable and still retain linguistic value?
    Can each term have ONE piece of music given as an example? (that all people would agree with)

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