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

  1. #31
    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    One book you should also read if you are interested in either analyzing or composing atonal music is The Structure of Atonal Music by Allen Forte. It explains the basic concepts, vocabulary, and language that analysts and composers of atonal music use. Pitch class sets, interval vectors, relations and set complexes. As an atonal composer, pitch class set theory has been extremely helpful in composition. The interval vectors not only show you what intervals occur in the pitch class set, but also the ones that do not occur and are not available. That helps you in designing the specific sound and character you want to achieve.

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  3. #32
    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    Lastly, I recommend the book Serial Composition by Reginald Smith Brindle. There are two chapters that may interest you. One chapter is about writing counterpoint (there are several chapters about counterpoint) but this one in particular is about two-part counterpoint and, while in a 12-tone context, discusses the importance of intervals and expression and how to write with a specific expressive goal in mind, even within the confines of a 12-tone row. Another chapter deals with how to write free atonality and analyzes two atonal pieces in great depth. It goes through a step by step thought process of how they were composed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Torkelburger View Post
    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.
    Hmm, there is often identifiable pulse in Schoenberg, which Boulez famously attacked him for. (Or was it the fact that he abided to old forms?) But Schoenberg always denied that he (unlike Strauss in his mind) was revolutionary and emphasized his closeness to tonal contemporaries such as Max Reger.

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    Senior Member Torkelburger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Hmm, there is often identifiable pulse in Schoenberg, which Boulez famously attacked him for. (Or was it the fact that he abided to old forms?) But Schoenberg always denied that he (unlike Strauss in his mind) was revolutionary and emphasized his closeness to tonal contemporaries such as Max Reger.
    Yes, you're right. And I've always liked that about Schoenberg. I love both approaches, actually. But yes, I was referring to the style developed by his followers much later when atonality became popular and mainstream among composers around the late 40's through early 70's. Literally hundreds of composers could be named, but to my mind come: Luciano Berio, Mario Davidovsky, Luigi Dallapiccola*, Luigi Nono, Leon Kirchner, Elliott Carter...

    *(Actually, Dallapiccola had occasionally written some canonic material in extremely complex rhythm and mixed meters. Nothing like fugues or passacaglias that I remember, but some nice canons).

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    This is a very good book. It's valuable because it provides a much-needed bird's-eye-view of serial thought, and how it has influenced all modern music, not just serial music.

    Just the title itself is indicative of how the author puts 12-tone and set theory under the same larger umbrella of "serialism," and how this type of more mathematical thought has influenced all areas of modern music.

    Last edited by millionrainbows; Nov-13-2020 at 15:36.

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  9. #36
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    tl;dr - for me how to listen depends on aesthetics and not tonality

    Because "atonal" is a fairly sweeping category, I personally would think it would depend more on the aesthetic of the music how I'd recommend listening to it rather than the tonality or lack thereof. As a fair few people on here have stated, a lot of Second Viennese music is actually pretty similar to classical and romantic-era music in many ways. You still have your melodies and chordal movements even if they sound a bit different from that of C.P.E. music. Check the opening of this Schoenberg concerto out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEY9lmCZbIc
    To me it honestly sounds pretty melodic in a lot of areas, and some of the harmonies kind of sound almost jazzy to me. So I personally don't have to listen to it any differently than I'd listen to the more harmonically adventurous late romantics like Scriabin.

    But there's also "atonal" music that is aesthetically super different to this here. Like if you consider spectralist stuff like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6WXzOIsBuQ) atonal, speaking only for myself I think it requires a different kind of listening out of me. It's less about hearing lines and counterpoint and rhythm, and more about placing yourself in an environment of sounds that you can experience, kind of like ambient music. (I really like ambient music and that's how I got into composers like Scelsi and Ligeti and the spectralists.)

    Again, I can speak only for myself here.

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  11. #37
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    I'd second the Jack Boss book. He was actually my teacher for a post-tonal theory class I took and that guy knows his stuff when it comes to Second Viennese School music in particular (also a very nice and humorous bloke).

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    If Schoenberg's violin concerto was tonal, this is what it might sound:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9yhTN0tlxw&t=460s

    (Or that one Zemlinsky piece, I can't remember which one it was.)

  13. #39
    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    ^ To me sounds similar to saying "If Obama was white, he would be like this...", but I can see where your coming from. His idiom is still post-Romantic.

    I've read some of John Rahn's Basic Atonal Theory. In the intro he made a good point that from infancy we developed a set of "tonal filters". He also boldly stated "not all atonal music is good music. In fact, most contemporary music is not very good.". That was back in 1980 when the book was published. I wonder how much he actually analysed the music to say it. How do you say Babbitt is good, but xyz composer's atonal music sucks (assuming it's still by trained composers)?
    Last edited by Phil loves classical; Dec-19-2020 at 16:40.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    ^ To me sounds similar to saying "If Obama was white, he would be like this...", but I can see where your coming from. His idiom is still post-Romantic.
    It's got almost the same melody as Schoenberg's violin concerto, duh.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    It's got almost the same melody as Schoenberg's violin concerto, duh.
    Almost as in how exactly?
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    ^ To me sounds similar to saying "If Obama was white, he would be like this...", but I can see where your coming from. His idiom is still post-Romantic.

    I've read some of John Rahn's Basic Atonal Theory. In the intro he made a good point that from infancy we developed a set of "tonal filters". He also boldly stated "not all atonal music is good music. In fact, most contemporary music is not very good.". That was back in 1980 when the book was published. I wonder how much he actually analysed the music to say it. How do you say Babbitt is good, but xyz composer's atonal music sucks (assuming it's still by trained composers)?
    How can you say that X/Y/Z is good, but M/N/R's composer tonal music sucks (assuming it's still by trained composers)?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    Almost as in how exactly?
    Scharwenka - Schoenberg.jpg

    I transposed the Schoenberg concerto, illegally with C clefs, so the beginnings of the two pieces are the exact same pitch. And had I bothered to transpose the notes themselves, I could have shown you that the continuation in the bass strings (Scharwenka, M. 10-13) is the same as the violin melody (Schoenberg, M. 1-3).
    Last edited by Gargamel; Dec-21-2020 at 10:27.

  18. #44
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    Quote Originally Posted by SeptimalTritone View Post
    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.


    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.
    My uneducated guess would be that it has something to do with melodic movement, whether it's going up or down. (Some people use the terms "conjoint", "disjoint" or "paralel" movement for the relationship of two voices.) It's quite strictly controlled to accommodate for either dissonance or consonance in traditional counterpoint, but for 2nd viennese school melodies, you often hear "up" which should be "down" in tonal music and so on. Take, for instance, the few first melodies of Wozzeck, and imagine what it would sound like if just a few of those melodic movements/vectors were inverted (so that up becomes down and vice versa). With only such a trifling modification, it would sound like a nursery rhyme!

    (Probably lots of exceptions to the rule which I just described! For example, the melodic line in the beginning of Schoenberg's piano concerto sounds rather tonal, but then, in the second phrase it goes a bit minor where tonally you should be hearing major! Maybeh.)
    Last edited by Gargamel; Jan-13-2021 at 01:03.

  19. #45
    Senior Member Tikoo Tuba's Avatar
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    I think the driving relationship is Space . Rhythmic intervals are ideally indeterminate .
    The performer must actually be one artist making this fundamental choice . Playing in
    a consort gets very psychic with a multi-dimensional sensibility .

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