Music Theory

What is Atonal Music?

By Hoffman Academy Team

Marshall Cuffe is a Hoffman Academy piano teacher, performer, and classical pianist. He recently 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.

What Is the Difference Between Tonal 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’s 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 Serialism

There are lots of ways to create atonal music. One way is called twelve tone serialism. Composer Arnold Schoenberg developed this kind of atonal music in the 1920s. 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 serialism one of the hardest kinds 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.

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. 

Read Next