Music Theory

What is Atonal Music?

By Jesse Preis
What is atonal music? Learn all about atonal music here.

What does ‘atonal’ mean in music? Learn about atonal music, including the history of atonal music and discover atonal music examples

Atonal music lacks a tonal center and does not follow the traditional rules that western music normally follows. This means that atonal music is not played in any normal key, like tonal music is. Instead, the composer takes all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale and treats all of these notes with equal respect, so no note is more important than another. This creates music that can be dissonant (crunchy sounding) and even hard to listen to. It often takes an open mind to listen and enjoy it. For a funny explanation of atonal music, check out this video from the country musician and comedian Merle Hazard. This country song itself is not atonal, but his explanation is very good!

One of our piano teachers at the physical Hoffman Academy in Portland is Marshall Cuffe, who is a teacher, performer, and classical pianist. Marshall hosted a Hoffman Academy Facebook Live broadcast and shared his knowledge of atonal music using Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Opus 33 as a beautiful example. In this post, Marshall explains atonal music with a bit of music history, some theory, and a great story. If you’d like to hear him play Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, check it out on Facebook Live (music starts at 11:00).  Here’s what Marshall shared with us:

“Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Opus 33 is a piece of music that was given to me by Pam Miller, my piano teacher when I was in middle school. It was one of her favorite pieces. She always pushed me to learn a wide variety of musical styles, even when I didn’t think I’d appreciate them. When she told me this piece was an example of atonal music I have to admit I wasn’t excited to learn it. I thought “atonal” meant nothing but “noise.” Then I heard a recording, and I felt transported. The piece has a very other-worldy feel. It really blew my mind. While I worked on it, Pam told me repeatedly that she wanted me to play this piece at her funeral. When she passed away in 2016 I did get to play it at her funeral, and so this piece has a lot of emotional significance for me.”

“Nocturne” by Samuel Barber (Marshall Cuffe’s performance)

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What Is the Difference Between Tonal Music and Atonal Music?

Tonal music is what most of us think of when we think of music. It has a harmonic center. For instance, if I play a song in the key of D major, that key signature feels like home. There are certain notes you can use, and they have certain expected roles to play. Tonal music creates tension through harmonies that follow traditional rules to form the structure of the piece. Near the end of the Romantic period of music, in the early 20th century, some composers thought that tonal music had been pushed to its limit. Harmonies had become very rich and complex, and some composers felt there was nowhere else to go in that direction. They felt that harmony was all used up and Romanticism had lost inventiveness. In response to this frustration, some composers decided to scrap all the rules of tonal music and invented something they called atonal music. It allowed them to get away from all the rules of standard, key-based music and experiment with new sounds.

Twelve-Tone Technique

There are lots of ways to create atonal music. One way employs what is called the twelve-tone technique. Composer Arnold Schoenberg designed this approach to atonal music in the 1920s. It was further developed by his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern and later composers such as Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt. In Western music we have twelve pitches, or tones, possible in a scale. For most tonal music you hear only seven tones in a scale, sometimes with a few accidentals thrown in. In twelve tone music you have to use all twelve tones without repeating any tones. When you’ve gone through all twelve pitches, that creates what’s called a row. Once you have a row you can play it backward, forward, flip it upside-down, or upside-down and backwards, or transpose it up or down. That gives you lots of patterns you can make with just a single row. One problem with a twelve-tone row is that the melody isn’t very singable. This makes twelve-tone music one of the most challenging types of music to appreciate. It takes some concentration and an open ear to find the beauty in it. As a performer I find it a fun challenge to play music that’s so unusual and still communicate emotion.

Here is an example of the twelve-tone technique. If you know your accidentals, try playing it and see how it sounds:

atonal music 12 tone row

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Atonal Melody + Traditional Harmony and Form = Awesome

For his Nocturne, Samuel Barber created the melody using two different twelve tone rows. Once again, it’s not a very singable melody, but he took that melody and set it to Romantic-style harmonies. The rich arpeggios and chords in the left hand frame how we hear the notes of the melody. Also, as you listen to this piece, see if you can hear the traditional ABA form. It starts with a very lyrical A section, moves to a turbulent B section, and then returns to the A section. By combining more familiar elements with an unusual twelve tone melody, Samuel Barber was able to achieve something really gorgeous with this piece. I hope you’ll appreciate it more now that you know a little more about how it was created. Once again, to hear Marshall play Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Opus 33, start watching this video at 11:00. 

Atonal Music for Listening!

Here is a list of some of my favorite atonal pieces of music. Some of them were composed for solo piano and some were composed for larger groups of musicians. Some of them were composed for very strange ensembles or to include strange performance techniques in order to evoke a particular response or to get a unique and unusual sound. Here are a couple examples of these types of pieces:

  • One particularly interesting piece is the Helicopter String Quartet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, which must be performed within four flying helicopters. The composition was created to blend the atonal sound of the instruments with the sound of the helicopter’s rotors. So that the audience can watch and hear the performance from the ground, each helicopter is equipped with video recording equipment.
  • Another interesting piece is Edgard Varèse’s Ecuatorial, which was written for male chorus (or bass solo), organ, brass, percussion, and two theremin cellos or two ondes martenots: electronic instruments that create otherworldly sounds. These instruments are often used in film scores that have to do with ghosts or aliens, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Monster House.
  • I also really enjoy Speaking Drums by Péter Eötvös, which is a concerto for percussionist and orchestra that employs wild, surprising, exciting, and fun performance elements. To see what I mean, you really need to watch and listen to this amazing performance.
  • One more atonal piece that you should know about is John Cage’s famous 4’33”. 4’33” can be “performed” by any soloist or group of instruments. Arnold Schoenberg and composers like him avoided tonality by treating all notes with equality, but in this piece John Cage avoids tonality by avoiding the use of any notes at all. That’s right – this piece has no notes at all on the page and therefore is known as the “silent piece.” Really, Cage was asking his audience to sit and listen to the sounds of the world around them.

Here is a list of more favorites that you can check out!

Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 (translated: “Three Piano Pieces”) – Arnold Schoenberg

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42 – Arnold Schoenberg

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra – Alban Berg

Arcana – Edgard Varèse

Répons – Pierre Boulez

Piano Sonata n. 2 – Pierre Boulez

Triple Duo – Elliott Carter

All Set for Jazz Ensemble – Milton Babbitt

Polymorphia – Krzysztof Penderecki

Pithoprakta – Iannis Xenakis

The Perilous Night for Prepared Piano – John Cage

Klavierstück XIV (translated: “Piano Piece XIV”) – Karlheinz Stockhausen

The Banshee (for piano strings) – Henry Cowell

Mouvement (-vor der Erstarrung) (translated: “Movement (-before freezing)”) – Helmut Lachenmann

Black Angels for Electric String Quartet – George Crumb

Cassandra’s Dream Song (for Solo Flutte) – Brian Ferneyhough

Voiceless Mass – Raven Chacon

We hope you have a better understanding of both atonal music and tonal music and maybe can even enjoy atonal music from time to time! It may sound like noise at first, but when you start listening, you will hear new things that you may have never heard before and that can be really exciting. Try it out, see what happens, and have fun!

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