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"Atonal" redirects here. For the ruler of the Mixtec kingdom of Coixtlahuaca, see Atonal II.
The ending of Schoenberg's "George Lieder" Op. 15/1 presents what would be an "extraordinary" chord in tonal music, without the harmonic-contrapuntal constraints of tonal music (Forte 1977, 1).About this sound Play 

Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another (Kennedy 1994). More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments" (Forte 1977, 1).

More narrowly still, the term is sometimes used to describe music that is neither tonal nor serial, especially the pre-twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School, principally Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). However, "[a]s a categorical label, 'atonal' generally means only that the piece is in the Western tradition and is not 'tonal'" (Rahn 1980, 1), although there are longer periods, e.g., medieval, renaissance, and modern modal musics to which this definition does not apply. "[S]erialism arose partly as a means of organizing more coherently the relations used in the preserial 'free atonal' music. ... Thus many useful and crucial insights about even strictly serial music depend only on such basic atonal theory" (Rahn 1980, 2).

Late 19th- and early 20th-century composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Edgard Varèse have written music that has been described, in full or in part, as atonal (Baker 1980; Baker 1986; Bertram 2000; Griffiths 2001; Kohlhase 1983; Lansky and Perle 2001; Obert 2004; Orvis 1974; Parks 1985; Rülke 2000; Teboul 1995–96; Zimmerman 2002).


While music without a tonal center had been written previously, for example Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité of 1885, it is with the twentieth century that the term atonality began to be applied to pieces, particularly those written by Arnold Schoenberg and The Second Viennese School. The term "atonality" was coined in 1907 by Joseph Marx in a scholarly study of tonality, which was later expanded into his doctoral thesis (Haydin and Esser 2009).

Their music arose from what was described as the "crisis of tonality" between the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in classical music. This situation had come about historically through the increasing use over the course of the nineteenth century of

ambiguous chords, less probable harmonic inflections, and the more unusual melodic and rhythmic inflections possible within the style[s] of tonal music. The distinction between the exceptional and the normal became more and more blurred; and, as a result, there was a concomitant loosening of the syntactical bonds through which tones and harmonies had been related to one another. The connections between harmonies were uncertain even on the lowest—chord-to-chord—level. On higher levels, long-range harmonic relationships and implications became so tenuous that they hardly functioned at all. At best, the felt probabilities of the style system had become obscure; at worst, they were approaching a uniformity which provided few guides for either composition or listening. (Meyer 1967, 241)

The first phase, known as "free atonality" or "free chromaticism", involved a conscious attempt to avoid traditional diatonic harmony. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck (1917–1922) by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schoenberg.

The second phase, begun after World War I, was exemplified by attempts to create a systematic means of composing without tonality, most famously the method of composing with 12 tones or the twelve-tone technique. This period included Berg's Lulu and Lyric Suite, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, his oratorio Die Jakobsleiter and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his last two string quartets. Schoenberg was the major innovator of the system, but his student, Anton Webern, is anecdotally claimed to have begun linking dynamics and tone color to the primary row, making rows not only of pitches but of other aspects of music as well (Du Noyer 2003, 272). However, actual analysis of Webern's twelve-tone works has so far failed to demonstrate the truth of this assertion. One analyst concluded, following a minute examination of the Piano Variations, op. 27, that

while the texture of this music may superficially resemble that of some serial music ... its structure does not. None of the patterns within separate nonpitch characteristics makes audible (or even numerical) sense in itself. The point is that these characteristics are still playing their traditional role of differentiation. (Westergaard 1963, 109)

Twelve-tone technique, combined with the parametrization (separate organization of four aspects of music: pitch, attack character, intensity, and duration) of Olivier Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism (du Noyer 2003, 272).

Atonality emerged as a pejorative term to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as "Bolshevik" and labeled as degenerate (Entartete Musik) along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime. Many composers had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse after World War II.

After Schoenberg's death, Igor Stravinsky used the twelve-tone technique (du Noyer 2003, 271). Iannis Xenakis generated pitch sets from mathematical formulae, and also saw the expansion of tonal possibilities as part of a synthesis between the hierarchical principle and the theory of numbers, principles which have dominated music since at least the time of Parmenides (Xenakis 1971, 204).

Free atonality[edit]

The twelve-tone technique was preceded by Schoenberg's freely atonal pieces of 1908–1923, which, though free, often have as an "integrative element...a minute intervallic cell" that in addition to expansion may be transformed as with a tone row, and in which individual notes may "function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells" (Perle 1977, 2).

The twelve-tone technique was also preceded by nondodecaphonic serial composition used independently in the works of Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Carl Ruggles, and others (Perle 1977, 37). "Essentially, Schoenberg and Hauer systematized and defined for their own dodecaphonic purposes a pervasive technical feature of 'modern' musical practice, the ostinato" (Perle 1977, 37)

Composing atonal music[edit]

Setting out to compose atonal music may seem complicated because of both the vagueness and generality of the term. Additionally George Perle explains that, "the 'free' atonality that preceded dodecaphony precludes by definition the possibility of self-consistent, generally applicable compositional procedures" (Perle 1962, 9). However, he provides one example as a way to compose atonal pieces, a pre-twelve-tone technique piece by Anton Webern, which rigorously avoids anything that suggests tonality, to choose pitches that do not imply tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was not allowed is required and what was required is not allowed. This is what was done by Charles Seeger in his explanation of dissonant counterpoint, which is a way to write atonal counterpoint (Seeger 1930).

Opening of Schoenberg's Klavierstück, Op. 11, No. 1, exemplifying his four procedures as listed by Kostka and Payne About this sound Play 

Kostka and Payne list four procedures as operational in the atonal music of Schoenberg, all of which may be taken as negative rules. Avoidance of melodic or harmonic octaves, avoidance of traditional pitch collections such as major or minor triads, avoidance of more than three successive pitches from the same diatonic scale, and use of disjunct melodies (avoidance of conjunct melodies) (Kostka & Payne 1995, 513).

Further, Perle agrees with Oster (1960) and Katz (1945) that, "the abandonment of the concept of a root-generator of the individual chord is a radical development that renders futile any attempt at a systematic formulation of chord structure and progression in atonal music along the lines of traditional harmonic theory" (Perle 1962, 31). Atonal compositional techniques and results "are not reducible to a set of foundational assumptions in terms of which the compositions that are collectively designated by the expression 'atonal music' can be said to represent 'a system' of composition" (Perle 1962, 1). Equal-interval chords are often of indeterminate root, mixed-interval chords are often best characterized by their interval content, while both lend themselves to atonal contexts (DeLone and Wittlich 1975, 362–72).

Perle also points out that structural coherence is most often achieved through operations on intervallic cells. A cell "may operate as a kind of microcosmic set of fixed intervallic content, statable either as a chord or as a melodic figure or as a combination of both. Its components may be fixed with regard to order, in which event it may be employed, like the twelve-tone set, in its literal transformations. … Individual tones may function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells" (Perle 1962, 9–10).

Regarding the post-tonal music of Perle, one theorist wrote: "While ... montages of discrete-seeming elements tend to accumulate global rhythms other than those of tonal progressions and their rhythms, there is a similarity between the two sorts of accumulates spatial and temporal relationships: a similarity consisting of generalized arching tone-centers linked together by shared background referential materials" (Swift 1982–83, 272).

Another approach of composition techniques for atonal music is given by Allen Forte who developed the theory behind atonal music (Forte 1977,[page needed]) Forte describes two main operations: transposition an inversion. Transposition can be seen as a rotation of t either clockwise or anti-clockwise on a circle, where each note of the chord is rotated equally. For example if t = 2 and the chord is [0 3 6], transposition (clockwise) will be [2 5 8]. Inversion can be seen as a symmetry with respect to the axis formed by 0 and 6. If we carry on with our example [0 3 6] becomes [0 9 6].

An important characteristic are the invariants which are the notes which stay identical after a transformation. It should be noted that no difference is made between the octave in which the note is played so that, for example, all Cs are equivalent, no matter the octave in which they actually occur. This is why the 12-note scale is represented by a circle. This leads us to the definition of the similarity between two chords which considers the subsets and the interval content of each chord (Forte 1977,[page needed]).


Controversy over the term itself[edit]

The term "atonality" itself has been controversial. Arnold Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone... to call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis" (Schoenberg 1978, 432).

Composer and theorist Milton Babbitt also disparaged the term, saying "The works that followed, many of them now familiar, include the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire, and they and a few yet to follow soon were termed 'atonal,' by I know not whom, and I prefer not to know, for in no sense does the term make sense. Not only does the music employ 'tones,' but it employs precisely the same 'tones,' the same physical materials, that music had employed for some two centuries. In all generosity, 'atonal' may have been intended as a mildly analytically derived term to suggest 'atonic' or to signify 'a-triadic tonality,' but, even so there were infinitely many things the music was not" (Babbitt 1991, 4–5).

"Atonal" developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Attempts to solve these problems by using terms such as "pan-tonal", "non-tonal", "multi-tonal", "free-tonal" and "without tonal center" instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.

Criticism of the concept of atonality[edit]

Composer Anton Webern held that "new laws asserted themselves that made it impossible to designate a piece as being in one key or another" (Webern 1963, 51). Composer Walter Piston, on the other hand, said that, out of long habit, whenever performers "play any little phrase they will hear it in some key—it may not be the right one, but the point is they will play it with a tonal sense. ... [T]he more I feel I know Schoenberg's music the more I believe he thought that way himself. ... And it isn't only the players; it's also the listeners. They will hear tonality in everything" (Westergaard 1968, 15).

Donald Jay Grout similarly doubted whether atonality is really possible, because "any combination of sounds can be referred to a fundamental root". He defined it as a fundamentally subjective category: "atonal music is music in which the person who is using the word cannot hear tonal centers" (Grout 1960, 647).

One difficulty is that even an otherwise "atonal" work, tonality "by assertion" is normally heard on the thematic or linear level. That is, centricity may be established through the repetition of a central pitch or from emphasis by means of instrumentation, register, rhythmic elongation, or metric accent (Simms 1986, 65).

Criticism of atonal music[edit]

Swiss conductor, composer, and musical philosopher Ernest Ansermet, a critic of atonal music, wrote extensively on this in the book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (French for The foundations of music in human consciousness) (Ansermet 1961)), where he argued that the classical musical language was a precondition for musical expression with its clear, harmonious structures. Ansermet argued that a tone system can only lead to a uniform perception of music if it is deduced from just a single interval. For Ansermet this interval is the fifth (Mosch 2004, 96).

See also[edit]


  • Ansermet, Ernest. 1961. Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. 2 vols. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière.
  • Babbitt, Milton. 1991. "A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1991". ACLS Occasional Paper 17. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.
  • Baker, James M. 1980. "Scriabin's Implicit Tonality". "Music Theory Spectrum" 2:1–18.
  • Baker, James M. 1986. The Music of Alexander Scriabin. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Bertram, Daniel Cole. 2000. "Prokofiev as a Modernist, 1907–1915". PhD diss. New Haven: Yale University.
  • DeLone, Peter, and Gary Wittlich (eds.). 1975. Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  • Du Noyer, Paul (ed.). 2003. "Contemporary", in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music: From Rock, Jazz, Blues and Hip Hop to Classical, Folk, World and More, pp. 271–272. London: Flame Tree Publishing. ISBN 1-904041-70-1.
  • Forte, Allen. 1977. The Structure of Atonal Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02120-2.
  • Griffiths, Paul. 2001. "Varèse, Edgard [Edgar] (Victor Achille Charles)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Grout, Donald Jay. 1960. A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Haydin, Berkat, and Stefan Esser. 2009 (Joseph Marx Society). Chandos, liner notes to "Joseph Marx: Orchestral Songs and Choral Works (accessed 23 October 2014.
  • Katz, Adele T. 1945. Challenge to Musical Traditions: A New Concept of Tonality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprint edition, New York: Da Capo, 1972.
  • Kennedy, Michael. 1994. "Atonal." The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-869162-9.
  • Kohlhase, Hans. 1983. "Aussermusikalische Tendenzen im Frühschaffen Paul Hindemiths. Versuch uber die Kammermusik Nr. 1 mit Finale 1921". Hamburger Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft 6:183–223.
  • Kostka, Stefan and Payne, Dorothy (1995). Tonal Harmony. Third Edition. ISBN 0-07-300056-6.
  • Lansky, Paul, and George Perle. 2001. "Atonality §2: Differences between Tonality and Atonality". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Lansky, Paul, George Perle, and Dave Headlam. 2001. "Atonality". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Meyer, Leonard B. 1967. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. (Second edition 1994.)
  • Mosch, Ulrich. 2004. Musikalisches Hören serieller Musik: Untersuchungen am Beispiel von Pierre Boulez' «Le Marteau sans maître». Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verag.
  • Obert, Simon. 2004. "Zum Begriff Atonalität: Ein Vergleich von Anton Weberns 'Sechs Bagatellen für Streichquartett' op. 9 und Igor Stravinskijs 'Trois pièces pour quatuor à cordes'". In Das Streichquartett in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Bericht über das Dritte Internationale Symposium Othmar Schoeck in Zürich, 19. und 20. Oktober 2001. Schriftenreihe der Othmar Schoeck-Gesellschaft 4, edited by Beat A. Föllmi and Michael Baumgartner. Tutzing: Schneider.
  • Orvis, Joan. 1974. "Technical and stylistic features of the piano etudes of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokofiev". DMus Piano pedagogy: Indiana University.
  • Oster, Ernst. 1960. "Re: A New Concept of Tonality (?)", Journal of Music Theory 4:96.
  • Parks, Richard S. 1985. "Tonal Analogues as Atonal Resources and Their Relation to form in Debussy's Chromatic Etude". Journal of Music Theory 29, no. 1 (Spring): 33–60.
  • Perle, George. 1962. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07430-0.
  • Perle, George. 1977. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Fourth Edition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03395-7.
  • Rahn, John. 1980. Basic Atonal Theory. New York: Longman, Inc. ISBN 0-582-28117-2.
  • Stegemann, Benedikt. 2013. Theory of Tonality. Theoretical Studies. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel. ISBN 978-3-7959-0963-5.
  • Rülke, Volker. 2000. "Bartóks Wende zur Atonalität: Die "Études" op. 18". Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 57, no. 3:240–63.
  • Schoenberg, Arnold. 1978. Theory of Harmony, translated by Roy Carter. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Seeger, Charles. 1930. "On Dissonant Counterpoint." Modern Music 7, no. 4:25–31.
  • Simms, Bryan R. 1986. Music of the Twentieth Century: Style and Structure. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-872580-8.
  • Swift, Richard. 1982–83. "A Tonal Analog: The Tone-Centered Music of George Perle". Perspectives of New Music 21, nos. 1/2 (Fall-Winter/Spring-Summer): 257–84. (Subscription Access.)
  • Teboul, Jean-Claude. 1995–96. "Comment analyser le neuvième interlude en si♭ du "Ludus tonalis" de Paul Hindemith? (Hindemith ou Schenker?) ". Ostinato Rigore: Revue Internationale d'Études Musicales, nos. 6–7:215–32.
  • Webern, Anton. 1963. The Path to the New Music, translated by Leo Black. Bryn Mawr. Pennsylvania: Theodore Presser; London: Universal Edition.
  • Westergaard, Peter. 1963. "Webern and 'Total Organization': An Analysis of the Second Movement of Piano Variations, Op. 27." Perspectives of New Music 1, no. 2 (Spring): 107–20.
  • Westergaard, Peter. 1968. "Conversation with Walter Piston". Perspectives of New Music 7, no.1 (Fall-Winter) 3–17.
  • Xenakis, Iannis. 1971. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press. Revised edition, 1992. Harmonologia Series No. 6. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press. ISBN 0-945193-24-6.
  • Zimmerman, Daniel J. 2002. "Families without Clusters in the Early Works of Sergei Prokofiev". PhD diss. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beach, David (ed.). 1983. "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music", Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1966. "Ansermets Polemik gegen Schönberg." Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 127, no. 5:179–83.
  • Forte, Allen. 1963. "Context and Continuity in an Atonal Work: A Set-Theoretic Approach". Perspectives of New Music 1, no. 2 (Spring): 72–82.
  • Forte, Allen. 1964. "A Theory of Set-Complexes for Music". Journal of Music Theory 8, no. 2 (Winter): 136–83.
  • Forte, Allen. 1965. "The Domain and Relations of Set-Complex Theory". Journal of Music Theory 9, no. 1 (Spring): 173–80.
  • Forte, Allen. 1972. Sets and Nonsets in Schoenberg's Atonal Music. Perspectives of New Music 11, no. 1 (Fall–Winter): 43–64.
  • Forte, Allen. 1978a. The Harmonic Organization of The Rite of Spring. New Haven : Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02201-8.
  • Forte, Allen. 1978b. "Schoenberg's Creative Evolution: The Path to Atonality". The Musical Quarterly 64, no. 2 (April): 133–76.
  • Forte, Allen. 1980. "Aspects of Rhythm in Webern's Atonal Music". Music Theory Spectrum 2:90–109.
  • Forte, Allen. 1998. The Atonal Music of Anton Webern. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-07352-2.
  • Forte, Allen, and Roy Travis. 1974. "Analysis Symposium: Webern, Orchestral Pieces (1913): Movement I ('Bewegt')". Journal of Music Theory 18, no. 1 (Spring, pp. 2-43.
  • Krausz, Michael. 1984. "The Tonal and the Foundational: Ansermet on Stravinsky". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42:383–86.
  • Krenek, Ernst. 1953. "Is the Twelve-Tone Technique on the Decline?" The Musical Quarterly 39, no 4 (October): 513–27.
  • Philippot, Michel. 1964. "Ansermet’s Phenomenological Metamorphoses." Translated by Edward Messinger. Perspectives of New Music 2, no. 2 (Spring-Summer): 129–40. Originally published as "Métamorphoses Phénoménologiques." Critique. Revue Générale des Publications Françaises et Etrangères, no. 186 (November 1962).
  • Radano, Ronald M. 1993. New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

External links[edit]