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

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    If we were going to try to understand atonal music by listening to it, what does its nature suggest we listen for?
    Since we know it is not tonal, we should not be listening to detect a tonal center.
    Since most listeners are already conditioned to listen to music in terms of a tonal center, first we must get past this obstacle, which can be difficult.
    Once we do that, we can hear the music as relative relationships, in terms of intervals. If you know all 6 intervals by ear, and can name them, you are well on your way to understanding that aspect.

  2. #47
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    If we were going to try to understand atonal music by listening to it, what does its nature suggest we listen for?
    Since we know it is not tonal, we should not be listening to detect a tonal center.
    Since most listeners are already conditioned to listen to music in terms of a tonal center, first we must get past this obstacle, which can be difficult.
    Once we do that, we can hear the music as relative relationships, in terms of intervals. If you know all 6 intervals by ear, and can name them, you are well on your way to understanding that aspect.
    Although what you said is exceedingly obvious, almost ridiculous, it did lead me on to a rather remarkable idea about harmonic practice in atonal music. What kind of intervals are necessary for tonal music? The answer is, equal intervals, and strong tonal chords are always built of equal-interval chords made up of thirds. For music to be atonal, equal-interval chords are unnecessary. So composers of atonal music consciously avoid equal-interval chords built of thirds. Other equal-interval chords such as those built on perfect fourths may be used, as Webern uses in Variations Op. 27. This leaves the question, when and how can weak tonal chords such as Sus be used? Berg likes to emphasize tonal undercurrents in his late works such as Lulu, perhaps sometimes by employing weak tonal chords, but more importantly the way he doubles the tonic/fundamental in the bass, outlining tonal chord progressions in this way even when the musical structure itself is atonal.
    Last edited by Gargamel; Jan-31-2021 at 04:13.

  3. #48
    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    If we were going to try to understand atonal music by listening to it, what does its nature suggest we listen for?
    Since we know it is not tonal, we should not be listening to detect a tonal center.
    Since most listeners are already conditioned to listen to music in terms of a tonal center, first we must get past this obstacle, which can be difficult.
    Once we do that, we can hear the music as relative relationships, in terms of intervals. If you know all 6 intervals by ear, and can name them, you are well on your way to understanding that aspect.
    I don't have a problem listening to atonal music, in fact, I don't have a clue as to what you are talking about: "listen to music in terms of a tonal center" - I never have this problem since I just listen to the sound of the music. It either pleases me or not, but I certainly never approach it from the perspective of tonal centers, etc.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Jan-31-2021 at 03:27.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Although what you said is exceedingly obvious, almost ridiculous, it did lead me on to a rather remarkable idea about harmonic practice in atonal music. What kind of intervals are necessary for tonal music? The answer is, equal intervals, and strong tonal chords are always built of equal-interval chords made up of thirds. For music to be atonal, equal-interval chords are unnecessary. So composers of atonal music consciously avoid equal-interval chords built of thirds. Other equal-interval chords such as those built on perfect fourths may be used, as Webern uses in Variations Op. 27. This leaves the question, when and how can weak tonal chords such as Sus be used? Berg likes to emphasize tonal undercurrents in his late works such as Lulu, perhaps sometimes by employing weak tonal chords, but more importantly the way he doubles the tonic/fundamental in the bass, outlining tonal chord progressions in this way even when the musical structure itself is atonal.
    You might find Schoenberg's Structural Functions of Harmony (available in softcover) interesting. In it, he talks about root movement in terms of intervals, and explains how intervals can suggest tonality, or movement to (or away from) a root station.







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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    I don't have a problem listening to atonal music, in fact, I don't have a clue as to what you are talking about: "listen to music in terms of a tonal center" - I never have this problem since I just listen to the sound of the music. It either pleases me or not, but I certainly never approach it from the perspective of tonal centers, etc.
    I find this hard to believe, since you have previously stated: "I majored in music theory and composition and know the standard methods of analyzing classical music..."
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Jan-31-2021 at 14:56.

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I find this hard to believe, since you have previously stated: "I majored in music theory and composition and know the standard methods of analyzing classical music..."
    I did graduate with a degree in music theory and composition, but when I listen to music I am not "analyzing on the fly."

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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    I did graduate with a degree in music theory and composition, but when I listen to music I am not "analyzing on the fly."
    You don't have to analyze to listen for tonal centers. I just used a theory term to communicate this way of listening to you.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    You don't have to analyze to listen for tonal centers. I just used a theory term to communicate this way of listening to you.
    If that's how you want to listen to atonal music. I don't want to listen for tonal centers in atonal music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    If that's how you want to listen to atonal music. I don't want to listen for tonal centers in atonal music.
    ???
    In my post #54, I said
    If we were going to try to understand atonal music by listening to it, what does its nature suggest we listen for?
    Since we know it is not tonal, we should not be listening to detect a tonal center.

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    f we were going to try to understand atonal music by listening to it, what does its nature suggest we listen for?
    Since we know it is not tonal, we should not be listening to detect a tonal center.
    So it seems we agree that we should not be listening for tonal centers when listening to atonal music.

    I'm glad we got that straightened out.

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    The real point is that we can listen to tonal music in terms of tonal centers without having to 'analyze it on the fly.'


    Last edited by millionrainbows; Feb-05-2021 at 17:35.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Although what you said is exceedingly obvious, almost ridiculous, it did lead me on to a rather remarkable idea about harmonic practice in atonal music. What kind of intervals are necessary for tonal music? The answer is, equal intervals, and strong tonal chords are always built of equal-interval chords made up of thirds. For music to be atonal, equal-interval chords are unnecessary. So composers of atonal music consciously avoid equal-interval chords built of thirds.
    The thirds in major and minor triads are not equal. In both cases, one of the thirds is major, the other minor. A triad consisting of equal intervals would be either diminished or augmented, and neither of those, in itself, implies a clear tonal center. Liszt exploits the equal-interval augmented triad and gives his Faust Symphony a splendidly atonal beginning:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZUQ7yZTFco

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    There are 6 intervals, the others being inversions: m2, M2, m3, M3, fourth, and tritone.

    As I see things, the intervals most useful to tonality are fourths and fifths, because when cycled (stacked), they generate the entire chromatic scale before looping back in to themselves, as in C-G-A-E-B etc. for fifths and C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab etc. for fourths. In this sense they are non-recursive, and encourage travel within a key by fourths and fifths (I-IV, V-I, etc), or travel to new keys by that interval.

    The other intervals M2, m3, M3, and the tritone are recursive and they cycle back on themselves 'within the octave,' thus staying within smaller 'chromatic orbits' than fourths & fifths, and encouraging chromatic movement, except for the m2, which with the fourth/fifth, are the only two intervals that generate the entire chromatic when cycled.

    In terms of harmonic sonority, intervals can be considered vertically. By themselves, intervals can suggest tonality or 'roots', which I go into in my blogs. For atonality, which has no 'root movement,' these effects can still have suggestive power.

    https://www.talkclassical.com/blogs/...-movement.html
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Feb-07-2021 at 01:22.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    The thirds in major and minor triads are not equal. In both cases, one of the thirds is major, the other minor. A triad consisting of equal intervals would be either diminished or augmented, and neither of those, in itself, implies a clear tonal center. Liszt exploits the equal-interval augmented triad and gives his Faust Symphony a splendidly atonal beginning:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZUQ7yZTFco
    Don't be like that. We both know what I'm talking about. The term "equal-interval chords" can be misleading, but that's the only term I know of used to describe the opposite to "mixed-interval chords". Functionally speaking, triads and seventh chords are not "mixed-interval chords", since the tonal system grants the major third and the minor third an equal status or function amongst various degrees.
    From Wikipedia: "Chords characterized by one consistent interval, or primarily but with alterations, are equal-interval chords."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gargamel View Post
    Don't be like that. We both know what I'm talking about. The term "equal-interval chords" can be misleading, but that's the only term I know of used to describe the opposite to "mixed-interval chords". Functionally speaking, triads and seventh chords are not "mixed-interval chords", since the tonal system grants the major third and the minor third an equal status or function amongst various degrees.
    From Wikipedia: "Chords characterized by one consistent interval, or primarily but with alterations, are equal-interval chords."
    I don't think my objection is misguided. The notion of "equal-interval chords" in which the intervals are in fact unequal except by a convention of notation (they're equidistant on the staff) seems to me no more than a physical description stating the obvious: that common practice tonality is based on triadic harmony and atonality is not. Perhaps that's all you meant to say?

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