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

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    Default ...How to Listen To and Understand Atonal Music?

    Been familiarizing myself with plenty of atonal music over the decades. My approach is just very melodical, but what I lack is the know-how to analyze it like analyzing tonal music. Although writings on 12-tone music often focus on the rows, that's not how most people listen to it. (The scottish composer Jonathan Harvey, studying with both Babbitt and Stockhausen, expressed doubts whether it's even possible to hear the series, or partitions of the series.)

    I've tried if I can see, whether different motifs and themes can be outlined by the intervals they span. Example: Berg's String Quartet Op. 3. The first motif spans 8 semitones. The continuation spans 4 semitones, which is conversely the same as 8, and when the motive is repeated, it's 4 semitones lower. The next motif spans 10 (conversely 2) semitones. The accompaniment is starchly differentiated by avoidance of these aforementioned interval spans. Now, I can't make deeper sense of it than that. (I've also tried to hear atonal music, to no avail, in terms of bass movement).
    Last edited by Gargamel; Sep-18-2020 at 00:36.

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    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    I don't believe there is a single way to listen, since different composers composed atonal music differently. These are just my thoughts, I don't profess to be an expert. But did do quite a bit to try to understand what's going on.

    Webern's Variations is the easiest to follow which highlight certain transformations. I can hear a lot of the retrogrades and inversions, since there is little else to distract the ear, and it's slow enough to follow, but I honestly doubt I could follow them without having experimented a bit of that stuff on my own. He follows with a technical consistency through. Schoenberg is more loose so I don't bother with listening too intently. I view his music as kind of like Classical or Romantic music in disguise, and it's fun to hear certain gestures in other idioms but with this alien sort of language. It's like watching the acting in a foreign language film. I didn't know what to listen to in Carter for a long time, but i think it's just his way of organizing in certain arrangements of register and rhythm. I don't think the pitches are to be picked out, nor really matter (it has a very fluid consistency because of the chord technique he uses frequently) unlike with Webern. With the Serialists, it's again rhythms, registers, timbres. I can make certain patterns out sometimes, sometimes not, but it sounds mesmerizing nonetheless. Ferneyhough keeps me on my toes, he strings unpredictable rhythms together.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    I don't try to "understand" any music, tonal or atonal. I just listen and it is the same process for either.

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    Senior Member GucciManeIsTheNewWebern's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    I don't try to "understand" any music, tonal or atonal. I just listen and it is the same process for either.
    While I agree with this and think atonal should just be listened to like any other music (it breaks my heart that some have the misconception it's some purely intellectual, unmusical exercise), I think OP is looking more for ways to appreciate the theory behind it or how to make better sense of it. I love listening to the end product, but I also wish I knew the theory behind how it actually worked better which could give me even a deeper appreciation of what's going on. But you're right: if i'm listening to Beethoven, I'm not really actively thinking "Wow! Look at how he employed that neopolitan sixth which sets up the cadence into the new key of the subtonic in the development section!" though I'm sure lots of people on this forum do.

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    Is the process of 'understanding' atonal music significantly different from 'understanding tonal music? Surely one needs to listen to it, study the score, come to know what the composer is doing and how/why it works, have the background knowledge to be able to do either?

    I have only a rudimentary knowledge of musical theory, enough to be able to read music to Initial Grade .
    I can't spot a diminished 4th or an augmented 7th. I know Sibelius' 4th Symphony makes significant use of the tritone - but I can't hear that it does. I'd like to 'understand' more about the technical side of musical construction, and I'd also like to know more about why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad...

    Haviing said that, there's other things I'm prioritising studying, so musical theory will have to wait. In the meantime, I'll continue to listen, read about and increase my understanding of music incrementally.

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    Quote Originally Posted by GucciManeIsTheNewWebern View Post
    While I agree with this and think atonal should just be listened to like any other music (it breaks my heart that some have the misconception it's some purely intellectual, unmusical exercise), I think OP is looking more for ways to appreciate the theory behind it or how to make better sense of it. I love listening to the end product, but I also wish I knew the theory behind how it actually worked better which could give me even a deeper appreciation of what's going on. But you're right: if i'm listening to Beethoven, I'm not really actively thinking "Wow! Look at how he employed that neopolitan sixth which sets up the cadence into the new key of the subtonic in the development section!" though I'm sure lots of people on this forum do.
    I don't think it's necessary to identify the rows to make good sense of serial music, or time to follow Carter. I'm rather very familiar with the serial procedures, and it doesn't help me to make much sense of a given piece. Further, it's virtually impossible for most people to make sense of music in this way when the row is being (trichordally) partitioned as in Babbitt's or Martino's music.

    I should like to hear serial music in the same way that I listen to Berg's string quartet or any free atonal music: in terms of hierarchies and how motifs and phrases are differentiated by their interval spans. The strong beats seem to outline some kind of hierarchies vaguely analoguous to tonal music's scale degrees but I can't tell exactly how.
    Last edited by Gargamel; Sep-18-2020 at 07:41.

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    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MacLeod View Post
    Is the process of 'understanding' atonal music significantly different from 'understanding tonal music? Surely one needs to listen to it, study the score, come to know what the composer is doing and how/why it works, have the background knowledge to be able to do either?

    I have only a rudimentary knowledge of musical theory, enough to be able to read music to Initial Grade .
    I can't spot a diminished 4th or an augmented 7th. I know Sibelius' 4th Symphony makes significant use of the tritone - but I can't hear that it does. I'd like to 'understand' more about the technical side of musical construction, and I'd also like to know more about why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad...

    Haviing said that, there's other things I'm prioritising studying, so musical theory will have to wait. In the meantime, I'll continue to listen, read about and increase my understanding of music incrementally.
    i think it shouldn't be, but for practical reasons it is, at least for most people at the beginning, because we're used to tonal building blocks but not atonal ones. I'm thinking a tone row is just part of a method, and not something important in itself to pick out and wonder at. Schoenberg was hoping he'd be the next grand-daddy like Bach, and that most music afterwards would be 12-tone based, and people would make lullabies out of it (a loose paraphrase or interpretation on my part). But as I recall from Bernstein's lecture, at the end of his life he wrote a tonal piece, some people felt he was selling out, and he seemed to change his stance and acknowledged tonal hierarchies can't be denied or something.
    Last edited by Phil loves classical; Sep-18-2020 at 13:57.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member GucciManeIsTheNewWebern's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    i think it shouldn't be, but for practical reasons it is, at least for most people at the beginning, because we're used to tonal building blocks but not atonal ones. I'm thinking a tone row is just part of a method, and not something important in itself to pick out and wonder at. Schoenberg was hoping he'd be the next grand-daddy like Bach, and that most music afterwards would be 12-tone based, and people would make lullabies out of it (a loose paraphrase or interpretation on my part). But as I recall from Bernstein's lecture, at the end of his life he wrote a tonal piece, some people felt he was selling out, and he seemed to change his stance and acknowledged tonal hierarchies can't be denied or something.
    Imagine that. Even though it's a funny joke, I wonder if theoretically it's super far fetched. People's minds have been conditioned over the course of several centuries to process tonal music as more pleasing, and dissonance and atonal music as jarring, creepy, tense etc. which is why composers of horror movie scores make use of it. While a lot of atonal music is indeed creepy and unsettling, I don't categorically attach these constructed emotions/interpretations to it which are more artificial societal constructs associated with the music. To me, it's just another way of writing music with an equally broad spectrum of expression and pallette of tones and colors, something known to people who've actually spent quality time with the music.

    So going back to the lullaby, if music somehow underwent some kind of immediate aesthetic/cultural revolution under Schönberg, whether a baby could actually find a 12-tone lullaby relaxing, or if our brains are physically wired to find tonal music more pleasing - after all, there's a reason we started out with tonality and not atonality. I personally find lots of atonal music very pleasing and relaxing, but would a baby, who has nothing to interpret the music with but the physical wirings of its brain? Perhaps there's none of that societal 'conditioning' at all, or (which I'm inclined to believe) it's a bit of column A and column B.
    Last edited by GucciManeIsTheNewWebern; Sep-18-2020 at 19:15.

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    ^ I recall there were some studies done, and dissonance causes certain brain patterns showing discomfort. I think it's wired in. It's possible to overcome it by looking at context and stuff, but all things equal, it wouldn't be pleasing to a baby. I'd be very skeptical feeding that sort of music first, it could make the baby unbalanced. I noticed this when I left Spotify on at night while sleeping a few times, Penderecki Thernody and Bartok's Music for Percussion (that timpani glissando!)... scared me. Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, 2nd movement, made me feel this amazing sort of ecstasy. Even Richard Marx's Right Here Waiting sounded good when I was sleeping once. I normally hate that song.
    Last edited by Phil loves classical; Sep-19-2020 at 02:44.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Is the process of 'understanding' atonal music significantly different from 'understanding tonal music? Surely one needs to listen to it, study the score, come to know what the composer is doing and how/why it works, have the background knowledge to be able to do either?
    If you are trying to "know what the composer is doing and how/why it works" you're not really listening to the music, as music. I have a degree in Music Theory and Composition. I know a lot about music theory, and about serial composition, tone rows, etc. But I NEVER draw on that knowledge when I am listening to music by Schönberg, Webern, or Berg, etc.

    Studying a score or analyzing or reading an analysis of a composition can be worthwhile, but it is a separate activity and should be done for its own end - not as preparation for listening to a piece of music, IMO. But for me, and I know enough about composing and have had enough conversations with other composers, and composition teachers to know that the last thing a composer wants if for his process to be front and center and on the audience's mind.

    Just like it is for tonal music, the hope is for the music to speak to us as music - not as a tone-puzzle, filled with permutations, inversions, retrogrades and other manipulations of a tone row.

    My thinking is this: if an atonal work does not engage your heart and excite your intelligence, then it is not working as music, or you are not in the mood for that kind of music. Learning how it was put together might be an interesting pastime - but is no replacement for experiencing the music, real time, no differently than what happens as you listen to your favorite tonal composers.

    At least that's how I look at it.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Sep-19-2020 at 03:02.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    If you are trying to "know what the composer is doing and how/why it works" you're not really listening to the music, as music. I have a degree in Music Theory and Composition. I know a lot about music theory, and about serial composition, tone rows, etc. But I NEVER draw on that knowledge when I am listening to music by Schönberg, Webern, or Berg, etc.

    Studying a score or analyzing or reading an analysis of a composition can be worthwhile, but it is a separate activity and should be done for its own end - not as preparation for listening to a piece of music, IMO. But for me, and I know enough about composing and have had enough conversations with other composers, and composition teachers to know that the last thing a composer wants if for his process to be front and center and on the audience's mind.

    Just like it is for tonal music, the hope is for the music to speak to us as music - not as a tone-puzzle, filled with permutations, inversions, retrogrades and other manipulations of a tone row.

    My thinking is this: if an atonal work does not engage your heart and excite your intelligence, then it is not working as music, or you are not in the mood for that kind of music. Learning how it was put together might be an interesting pastime - but is no replacement for experiencing the music, real time, no differently than what happens as you listen to your favorite tonal composers.

    At least that's how I look at it.
    I'm not recommending any particular process for listening to music. I was responding to the question about how to go about understanding its form, making the point that the same activities you might engage in to understand tonal could be the same for atonal.

    As for the idea that music must be listened to 'as music' (and not as...what?), such prescription seems to me unnecessary. We are each entitled to listen to music in whatever way we will. If someone wants to do a mechanistic analysis, let them get on with it. If someone wants to wallow in whatever emotional or spiritual response they gain from it, that's fine.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MacLeod View Post
    I'm not recommending any particular process for listening to music. I was responding to the question about how to go about understanding its form, making the point that the same activities you might engage in to understand tonal could be the same for atonal.

    As for the idea that music must be listened to 'as music' (and not as...what?), such prescription seems to me unnecessary. We are each entitled to listen to music in whatever way we will. If someone wants to do a mechanistic analysis, let them get on with it. If someone wants to wallow in whatever emotional or spiritual response they gain from it, that's fine.
    When listening to tonal music, one subconsciously hears hierarchies which can also be analyzed: Octaves doublings are insignificant. Fifths are usually less important than thirds. Sevenths and fourths are more important than most tones. Similarly in atonal music, there exists hierarchies, which serial stuff doesn't adequately explain. Some intervals have more significance than others, which I tried to highlight with the Berg example. (E. g. it doesn't matter much whether an interval is eight semitones or four, because they're equivalent.)

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    Another non-expert here.

    The OP here was about atonal music, but nearly all the discussion has been about serial or avant garde music.

    I read on Wikipedia that (for instance) Scriabin's late piano sonatas are pretty much atonal.

    Now I find music like that very appealing, and some music by the early serialists (eg some Webern). Take Berg's violin concerto - is that a piece which is deemed to be atonal, as that's another which I can readily relate to. However, I seem to recall it is sometimes criticised because the serial procedures adopted contain too many tonal implications, as though that thereby sells out the atonal religion. Do I recall correctly?

    I have never been able to get anything from later serialists or members of avant garde tendencies, but is it fair to say that there are other atonal approaches aside from theirs? The mainstream music that seems to have most in common with such styles is the horror movie soundtrack, which suggests it would be wrong to say that such music has no emotional content. However, as someone who doesn't listen to it much I just tend to find it destabilising in a way that I do not find pleasant. Can someone suggest a piece of out-and-out atonal or avant garde music which is pleasant to listen to fairly casually?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eclectic Al View Post
    Can someone suggest a piece of out-and-out atonal or avant garde music which is pleasant to listen to fairly casually?
    Examples of some highly melodic composers:
    Roger Sessions (Symphonies 5 and 8), Andre Jolivet (Piano concerto, Piano sonata no. 2 and the symphonies), Bernstein (Symphony no. 3 'Kaddish'), Kenneth Leighton (Piano concerto no. 3). Babbitt's late music is also comparatively pleasant (Septet but Equal, String quartet no. 6) and jazzy (Canonical form).

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MacLeod View Post
    I'm not recommending any particular process for listening to music. I was responding to the question about how to go about understanding its form, making the point that the same activities you might engage in to understand tonal could be the same for atonal.

    As for the idea that music must be listened to 'as music' (and not as...what?), such prescription seems to me unnecessary. We are each entitled to listen to music in whatever way we will. If someone wants to do a mechanistic analysis, let them get on with it. If someone wants to wallow in whatever emotional or spiritual response they gain from it, that's fine.
    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. Atonal music may never speak to some of us, and that's okay. There is no law that says that atonal music must be understood or appreciated or liked.

    If after giving it a good try and sampling several different composers and works the music still does not engage you - then move on and forget about it.

    The OP here was about atonal music, but nearly all the discussion has been about serial or avant garde music.

    Can someone suggest a piece of out-and-out atonal or avant garde music which is pleasant to listen to fairly casually?
    I find much of Webern's music to be pleasant to listen to, his Symphony, op 21, for example. But you may not. It does have the advantage of being short.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Sep-19-2020 at 13:44.

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