The Truth about Tonality

I feel like I have to write about this. It frustrates me when music majors around me talk about tonality and atonality in the wrong way. I feel like I need to talk about the things that I have learned about tonality now that I’m about to graduate with a degree in Music.

Too often I hear people talking about how they hate atonal music, and that it’s garbage.  They praise tonality saying that that’s the way music was supposed to stay.

In other words: Tonal = Beautiful.  Atonal = Ugly.

This is simply not what these words mean.

A lot of this is semantics but for the most part (really simplified) tonal is referring to a specific system of music composition techniques.  A set of certain rules helping to aid the “function” of music.  Tonic is home, dominant leads to the tonic, cadential material, pre-cadential material, post-cadential and so forth.  Harmony has a “function,” along with leading tones, resolutions, etc.  The climax of this sort of music belongs to J.S. Bach.  Of course it existed before him and after him, but we look to Bach as the ultimate example of this kind of music.

Before tonality was what we generally refer to as “modality,”  music based on modes rather than the tonal major/minor scales that we’re used to. We see examples of this in Binchois, and Du Fay.  So after Tonality, what then?  Atonality?

In a sense, yes, to say that something is atonal really means that it’s just not tonal.  That, however, doesn’t mean it’s ugly.  What are some examples of atonal music that aren’t ugly?  How ’bout Debussy?  Copland?  Vaughan Williams?  Holst?  Shastokovich?  Duruflé?  Barber?  Pärt?  Whitacre?  These are all examples of music that’s beautiful but not necessarily tonal.  They don’t follow the rules that Bach did.  They’re not concerned as much with resolutions, dominant-tonic relations, and leading tones.  They follow a different set of aesthetics yes, but they don’t follow tonality.  By strict definition they are all atonal composers.

Many would then say that it’s the dissonance they don’t like.  Suddenly Consonance = Beautiful, and Dissonance = Ugly.  But this isn’t correct either.  Dissonance has been around since Medieval music.  Dissonance causes tension between the consonances.  Can dissonance be jarring?  Yes.  Irritating?  Sometimes.  Necessary?  Absolutely.  The music of Bach, Beethoven and Purcell displays a great deal of dissonance, and yet we don’t find it ugly, even if it’s not your cup of tea.

In general, when people refer to “atonality,” they are referring to the Second Viennese School, the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.  True, it isn’t tonal, so it is atonal, but atonal isn’t the only way to describe it.  Schoenberg went through several styles of composition but the ones he is most famous for is his so called “free-atonal” period, and his serial period.  The hallmark of the “free-atonality” period is his multi-movement, Pierrot Lunaire.  Despite the lack of rules in tonality, it’s highly organized in form, rhythm and instrumentation.  After this period, he then created a system of composition based on the use of all twelve unique pitch classes.  Despite that it sounds random, there is a high level or organization of the pitches.

My point it, this is serialism, or dodecaphony.  Is it atonal?  Yes.  Is this what atonal is?  No.  To say that this music, alone, is how atonal music is defined is too narrow.  One side note, Schoenberg himself preferred that it be called “pan-tonal music,” because it uses all twelve pitch classes.  I don’t particularly care for this style of music myself, either for listening or composing, but it is a part of our history of music.  Some of these techniques can be quite useful.

So that’s my little rant.  Just be more careful about how you use the word “atonal.”  Is it an inaccurate term?  Yes, but it’s all we’ve got for now.


One thought on “The Truth about Tonality

  1. This is one of my pet peeves! I hate it when people say they hate dissonance (which in my experience is generally of the older generation), and I always want to go on a rant just like this! Some old lady was telling me the other day that Mack Wilberg was too “dissonant”… ~_-

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