Arthur Schoenberg

Arthur Schoenberg.


Serialism is a method of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). In it all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (or in later instances rhythms, dynamics, and other musical features) are systematically employed in comprehensive distribution, utilizing rows and sets and organizing principles. Embodied in his "twelve-tone technique", invented in 1921, serialism was envisioned as an attempt to distance composition from traditional tonality and melody. Schoenberg's phrase "emancipation of dissonance" related to his pursuit of atonality and his reframing of musicality.


Frequently, the serialist approach to composition institutes other constraints on organization beyond mere prescribed order, such as the use of elements equally and in similar proportion. Common intervals between tones may be established, or dynamic changes based on an inclusive pattern. While mathematical in its organization, the twelve-tone method was equally expressive as other approaches to composition, according to Schoenberg. He famously compared his music to all other forms of human work, with a skeleton and a circulatory and nervous system – "an honest and intelligent person who comes to us saying something he feels deeply and which is of significance to all of us".


Serialism can also be seen in a broader range of composition and production that extends to fields beyond music. It paralleled advances in mathematics such as set theory, which deals with the properties of well-defined collections of objects, while also influencing the visual arts through the work of artists such as Josef Albers and Sol LeWitt. The structural understanding of sets and permutations in music also influenced scholars and critics, who returned to classical pieces in light of serialist principles to discover new features of their organization.


Though most often associated with music that uses all 12 half-steps in a series (known as 12-note music), it can also be use with fewer notes. A branch known as total serialism used in the 1950s by Pierre Stockhausen also fixed the order of other musical events such as dynamics, rhythms, tempo, and even attack.