atonal music

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg.

Atonal music is music that is written and performed without regard to any specific key or tonal center (see tonality). Atonality in Western music was first used famously in 1908 by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) in the middle of his second string quartet. Schoenberg preferred the term "pantonality", since atonality seemed to imply an anti-musical process. Atonal passages are also found in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Prokofiev's first piano concerto, and Skryabin's piano music.


The term "atonal music" has several different but related meanings, including music free of the boundaries of major/minor tonality or music free of any other form of pitch centricity. The term began to be applied to compositions written by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, beginning with his second string quartet in 1907. He and his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, pioneered important atonal works that are still in the repertoire, including Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) for voice and chamber ensemble.


Atonality became a driving force for experimentation during the 20th century at a time when composers were searching for new approaches. The methods they pursued were manifold, including using microtones (scale steps smaller than half tones) and randomly generated notes, and applying different mathematical formulas to pitch generation. Electro-acoustic music that utilizes sound objects rather than clearly defined pitches could also be considered an extension of atonal composition.


Atonal techniques also made their way into popular culture. In movie music, atonality became a powerful element not only in suspenseful, violent, or dramatic scenes but also in reflective scenes to suggest some kind of ambiguity. Both approaches are present in Alex North's movie scores, such as Viva Zapatal (1952). Avante-garde jazz and rock artists and groups, such as American saxophonist John Coltrane and the British rock group Henry Cow, have also used atonality, thus extending the boundaries of their genres.


Schoenberg's twelve-tone row

Schoenberg worked at getting rid of traditional harmony, especially the tonal center, by adopting a twelve-tone row. Each of his compositions was based on a series or row made of all twelve chromatic tones arranged in a specific order. The order of the row stays the same throughout the work, but may be varied by transposing it by octaves, changing the rhythm, or using the row backwards.