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Thread: ...How to Listen To and Understand Atonal Music?

  1. #16
    MacLeod
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    ^ Well, you give your advice and I'll give mine.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    The title of the thread is "...How to Listen To and Understand Atonal Music?"

    The idea of "understanding" music is completely separate from listening to music. My advice is to simply listen to atonal music and forget trying to understand it. The understanding, such as it is, comes with exposure. Or not.
    Your advice is not satisfactory. After immensing oneself with atonal music for decades (I'm able to whistle most of Schoenberg's, Berg's and Webern's works from beginning to end), there comes a limit -- as with tonal music -- where exposure alone doesn't further understanding. Again refer to my first post how I'm attempting to keep track of the musical patterns.

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    Well it's a disappointment, you guys who know so much about tonal music know almost nothing about atonal music, and there's only talk about tone rows.

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    I personally find that beginning my approach into atonal pieces with a journey into understanding the orchestration, dynamic, form and context of the piece yields a lot more insight into the harmony than a direct attack at the harmony itself would.

    In fact -- with the wisdom of a few more years of practice than I once had (I was very 'harmony obsessed' through my musical development), I would say that I also get a lot more out of tonal musical works with that approach too! Harmony often feels like an afterthought once you've developed an understanding into those attributes of a piece.

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    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    There is not just one way of composing atonal music. There are all kinds of methods and procedures. The only thing they all have in common is just that they don’t have a tonal center. Not every atonal piece even has a melody (such as in some Ligeti pieces). Some don’t have harmony either (such as solo instrumental pieces).

    A good resource to see some of these different procedures in use for atonal composition is on Samuel Andreyev’s YouTube channel. He analyzes a lot of modern music and much of it is atonal (does not fall under Stravinskian, 12-tone, or tonal techniques). Here are a few videos that show atonal technique:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dunOEm1sGk

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZFECPwY9fM

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eswrq0QToZo

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKq5L7uqu4c

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeDjNSxsCs

    Also, a good place to start for atonal analysis is Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11. You can see in this video how the intervals from just the first 5 bars are turned up-side down, backwards, upside-down and backwards, used harmonically, etc., etc. in every note and bar in the rest of the piece.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDiyVJVeNXg

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    Senior Member SeptimalTritone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Your advice is not satisfactory. After immensing oneself with atonal music for decades (I'm able to whistle most of Schoenberg's, Berg's and Webern's works from beginning to end), there comes a limit -- as with tonal music -- where exposure alone doesn't further understanding. Again refer to my first post how I'm attempting to keep track of the musical patterns.
    Looks like you have more than well understood second Viennese music at an intuitive sonic level, but are genuinely wishing to understand the mechanics of why it works for your own interest (and not just as a crutch or replacement for gut level musical understanding). This is good.

    I've found Jack Boss's book on 12-tone Schoenberg https://www.amazon.com/Schoenbergs-T.../dp/1107624924 helpful. It covers how the music strives for thematic/contrapuntal goals and moves toward/away from them and eventually realizes them. You'll learn more than merely a dry stamp-collector's catalogue of which tone row inversion goes where - you'll gain an understanding of musical development in a Schoenberg work.

    The second chapter on the Suite for Piano op 25 is excellent and is alone worth the book, albeit hard work. But it's worth it.

    I've also enjoyed Kathryn Bailey's book on Webern here https://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Note-M.../dp/0521547962

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SeptimalTritone View Post
    Looks like you have more than well understood second Viennese music at an intuitive sonic level, but are genuinely wishing to understand the mechanics of why it works for your own interest (and not just as a crutch or replacement for gut level musical understanding). This is good.

    I've found Jack Boss's book on 12-tone Schoenberg https://www.amazon.com/Schoenbergs-T.../dp/1107624924 helpful. It covers how the music strives for thematic/contrapuntal goals and moves toward/away from them and eventually realizes them. You'll learn more than merely a dry stamp-collector's catalogue of which tone row inversion goes where - you'll gain an understanding of musical development in a Schoenberg work.

    The second chapter on the Suite for Piano op 25 is excellent and is alone worth the book, albeit hard work. But it's worth it.

    I've also enjoyed Kathryn Bailey's book on Webern here https://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Note-M.../dp/0521547962
    Interesting. I wasn't aware of the Boss book but I have Kathryn Bailey's book on Webern.

    While books like these can be valuable for study (I've got a bunch of them: George Perle's 2-vols on the Berg operas, books on the music of Boulez, Carter, Stravinsky, Cage, etc.) and it can be interesting reading about how these composers worked, it doesn't help me to appreciate the music. As I wrote earlier, my "understanding" (for lack of a better term) of a piece of music is entirely gotten from listening to it.

    But we might be using the word "understanding" differently.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Torkelburger View Post
    There is not just one way of composing atonal music. There are all kinds of methods and procedures. The only thing they all have in common is just that they don’t have a tonal center. Not every atonal piece even has a melody (such as in some Ligeti pieces). Some don’t have harmony either (such as solo instrumental pieces).

    A good resource to see some of these different procedures in use for atonal composition is on Samuel Andreyev’s YouTube channel. He analyzes a lot of modern music and much of it is atonal (does not fall under Stravinskian, 12-tone, or tonal techniques). Here are a few videos that show atonal technique:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dunOEm1sGk

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZFECPwY9fM

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eswrq0QToZo

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKq5L7uqu4c

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeDjNSxsCs

    Also, a good place to start for atonal analysis is Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11. You can see in this video how the intervals from just the first 5 bars are turned up-side down, backwards, upside-down and backwards, used harmonically, etc., etc. in every note and bar in the rest of the piece.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDiyVJVeNXg
    Looking how it goes up-side down, backwards, upside-down and backwards, it's fairly kindergarden stuff. The difficulty for me is "why this transposition? Why does the motif start at this pitch?" because what atonal music lacks is root movement. The first video link shows an example (Schoenberg's passacaglia) which is structured on bass movement but that's just the nature of a passacaglia and not something you can generally base your analysis on.

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    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    Looking how it goes up-side down, backwards, upside-down and backwards, it's fairly kindergarden stuff.
    Pitches appearing in different transformations adds unity and cohesion to a piece that might otherwise sound random in a non-tonal context. Further, the varying rhythms (some of them difficult), textures, articulations, dynamics, octave displacements, transpositions, etc., etc. add the needed layers of complexity. And the technique in the piece is not so simple that I seriously doubt 99.9% of any group of listeners would realize that measure 13 is derived from measure 4, even when reading the score. So your comment is moot.

    The difficulty for me is "why this transposition? Why does the motif start at this pitch?" because what atonal music lacks is root movement.
    Lacking root movement is not any sort of shortcoming of atonal music. Do not try and shoehorn atonal music to fit the mold and customs of tonal music and then criticize it for not meeting that standard.

    To choose a certain transposition or start a motif at a certain pitch in atonal composition, the composer is most likely trying to accomplish one or more of the following--the avoidance of note fatigue, the avoidance of tonal implications. As an atonal composer, you want to avoid repetition of a certain note(s) that may give too much precedence to that note(s) above the others and therefore mistakenly create an auditory “fatigue”. You generally want a universal cycling through all twelve pitches similar to 12-tone composition but not as systematic a process in order to keep a chromatic freshness to the sound. Webern, in particular, excelled in this kind of atonal writing (see Bagatelles for String Quartet for example). You also want to avoid a series of notes that might denote a key, triad, scale, anything tonal, etc. So in order to accomplish that, a composer must choose the best transposition to accomplish these goals. It becomes extremely difficult to do in 12-tone composition counterpoint.

    The first video link shows an example (Schoenberg's passacaglia) which is structured on bass movement but that's just the nature of a passacaglia and not something you can generally base your analysis on.
    As with most atonal music, Schoenberg’s passacaglia is structured on a specific pitch class set and interval vector and is first stated in the bass-ostinato. The analysis is based on this as the melodic material, harmonies, and accompaniment all come from this same pitch class set and interval vector. The video explained this in laymen terms.

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Looking how it goes up-side down, backwards, upside-down and backwards, it's fairly kindergarden stuff. The difficulty for me is "why this transposition? Why does the motif start at this pitch?" because what atonal music lacks is root movement. The first video link shows an example (Schoenberg's passacaglia) which is structured on bass movement but that's just the nature of a passacaglia and not something you can generally base your analysis on.
    If you don't it know it, this book by Charles Wuorinen offers a good basic explanation of atonal composition:

    Simple Composition

    41agBq43qKL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

    Don't let the title fool you.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Oct-08-2020 at 20:50.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Torkelburger View Post
    Pitches appearing in different transformations adds unity and cohesion to a piece that might otherwise sound random in a non-tonal context. Further, the varying rhythms (some of them difficult), textures, articulations, dynamics, octave displacements, transpositions, etc., etc. add the needed layers of complexity. And the technique in the piece is not so simple that I seriously doubt 99.9% of any group of listeners would realize that measure 13 is derived from measure 4, even when reading the score. So your comment is moot.

    Lacking root movement is not any sort of shortcoming of atonal music. Do not try and shoehorn atonal music to fit the mold and customs of tonal music and then criticize it for not meeting that standard
    When I said "kindergarden stuff", I meant it's easier for me to get acquainted with the music through these transformations than it is from other analytic viewpoints, although I could not always tell which building block is related to which, and with combinatorial schemes such as Babbitt's (whose music and theory I'm extremely well acquainted with) it's almost impossible to analyze from this viewpoint being a layman.


    Quote Originally Posted by Torkelburger View Post
    To choose a certain transposition or start a motif at a certain pitch in atonal composition, the composer is most likely trying to accomplish one or more of the following--the avoidance of note fatigue, the avoidance of tonal implications. As an atonal composer, you want to avoid repetition of a certain note(s) that may give too much precedence to that note(s) above the others and therefore mistakenly create an auditory “fatigue”. You generally want a universal cycling through all twelve pitches similar to 12-tone composition but not as systematic a process in order to keep a chromatic freshness to the sound. Webern, in particular, excelled in this kind of atonal writing (see Bagatelles for String Quartet for example). You also want to avoid a series of notes that might denote a key, triad, scale, anything tonal, etc. So in order to accomplish that, a composer must choose the best transposition to accomplish these goals. It becomes extremely difficult to do in 12-tone composition counterpoint.
    Maybe try contrasting it with to traditional (Bach or Fux) counterpoint? Consonant intervals being relagated to weak beats?
    Last edited by Gargamel; Oct-08-2020 at 21:52.

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  19. #27
    Senior Member SeptimalTritone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    When I said "kindergarden stuff", I meant it's easier for me to get acquainted with the music through these transformations than it is from other analytic viewpoints, although I could not always tell which building block is related to which, and with combinatorial schemes such as Babbitt's (whose music and theory I'm extremely well acquainted with) it's almost impossible to analyze from this viewpoint being a layman.
    So go check out the Jack Boss book I mentioned above. Start with the analysis of the op 25 prelude. It does more than pedantically count tone rows - it fully explains the musical narrative of the work and how the tone rows are placed together to arrive towards/away from a musical goal.

    For a more gentle introduction explaining what makes atonal music "click", you could try Charles Rosen's Schoenberg book. In fact, you should start with that. You can easily find the pdf online for free at the moment.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Maybe try contrasting it with to traditional (Bach or Fux) counterpoint? Consonant intervals being relagated to weak beats?
    In Schoenberg, resolution of dissonance is not the greatest driving factor propelling the music as it would be in Beethoven. Generally in Schoenberg's counterpoint there's a certain management of dissonance - it doesn't randomly and suddenly wind up on a stable root position triad, or randomly wind up on a dense tone cluster.

    But still, dissonant-constant resolution a la Bach/Fux counterpoint is not the main driving force. Take, e.g., the end of the first movement of Schoenberg's string quartet 4. It ends on a hexachord, but it sounds conclusive! This is because other mechanics like the rhythm of chromatic cycling (like Torkelberger mentioned in Webern's six bagatelles, but also play a role in most atonal/serial Second-Viennese works) play a greater role. Further, (generalized) motivic/harmonic/contrapuntal development is also more important in this music - it fuels the developmental narrative.

    I'd suggest starting by reading the Charles Rosen book. It's short, and an accessible and breezy read. It will tell you what mechanics matter more in this music. Then perhaps follow it up with the Jack Boss book for detailed analysis of specific works.
    Last edited by SeptimalTritone; Oct-08-2020 at 22:13.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SeptimalTritone View Post
    I'd suggest starting by reading the Charles Rosen book. It's short, and an accessible and breezy read. It will tell you what mechanics matter more in this music. Then perhaps follow it up with the Jack Boss book for detailed analysis of specific works.
    Oh, thanks. I also once started Wuorinen's book but for some reason never finished it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Maybe try contrasting it with to traditional (Bach or Fux) counterpoint? Consonant intervals being relagated to weak beats?
    I’ll add my two cents worth. Comparing and contrasting atonal passacaglias to Bach’s wouldn’t be very productive in my opinion. Atonal music does not use the same expressive devices as tonal music. It does not use triadic harmony, root movement, keys/tonality, scales, etc. to generate expressiveness.

    Atonal music must rely on intervals for expressive purposes, both harmonically and melodically. For example, harmonically occurring minor ninths and minor seconds are very tense while harmonically occurring thirds and sixths are expressively calmer. The options increase melodically. For instance, a melodically *ascending* minor ninth emotes something different than a *descending* minor ninth, etc. even though it’s the same interval.

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    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    So why does an atonal composer write a passacaglia then? The answer is he has chosen it as a form best suited to make his musical argument comprehensible to the listener. This is best explained in Aaron Copland’s book What to Listen for In Music, which applies to the periods of music from Baroque through Contemporary. The book is especially useful to modern composers because it answers the question of “I have this musical idea (either Stravinskian, 12-tone, atonal, etc.). How do I get the audience to comprehend this idea?”

    There are two choices, and only two—to repeat the idea or not to repeat the idea. Each option has several subsets and each subset can be broken down even further so it can get rather complicated. For repetition of the idea you have: repetition through sectional forms (two and three part forms, rondo, and you can even add modern-invented forms like mirror forms and minimalism); repetition through variation (basso ostinato, passacaglia, chaconne, theme and variations, (and minimalism)); repetition through contrapuntal forms (canon, invention, fugue, etc.); repetition through developmental forms (sonata form). Non-repetition forms include free forms, text-based forms, opera/drama/ballet, film music, programmatic forms)—or you could just have a very, very short piece like Webern would sometimes compose.

    Copland explains how each of these forms (except the modern forms I mentioned) presents an idea as a unique musical argument in a way the listener can comprehend. Now, as a composer, certain ideas will be better suited for a certain form over others and the composer must find the right one for this particular idea. For example, the rhythms in atonal music are often asymmetrical, with odd groupings, ties over the downbeat, complex rhythms, changing meters, and odd meters. An idea with those characteristics would probably not be well suited for a passacaglia and the composer would have to choose something else. You couldn’t relegate consonant intervals to weak beats as in your question, as the weak beats would always be changing and there may not even be an identifiable pulse to the music.

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