Atonality: the aesthetic dilemma arising from an artistic revolt

a blurry photo of a person doing a trickWe want to ask how pleasant, aesthetically appreciable, and ultimately beautiful atonal music is. First, clarifying that “atonality” does not imply using serial or similarly contrived compositional patterns is helpful. In our understanding, it represents only the choice not to compose with alterations in key and, therefore, to give up the presence of tonal centers with attracting power from which it is challenging to move away.

Tonal music is primarily characterized by melodic and harmonic choices that always revolve around the tonic or fundamental. If, for example, a piece is composed in E major, it will frequently return to the E-G#-B triad, representing a reference point from which to start and return to give the piece a sense of resolution and completion. Even in the case of modulations, the new tonics will always play the same role, the only difference being that they are inherently transient and generally subject to fading out either in the planting key or, quite often, in other neighboring tones.

In the atonal sphere, the composer renounces any constraint dictated by the presence of a privileged pair of chords (of tonic and dominant) to take refuge in a flow of what are no longer mere chromaticisms but rather exact compositional choices aimed at making particular atmospheres or sound images vivid. In a sense, one could speak of atonality even when many composers choose non-diatonic scales (such as, for example, hexatonal or pentatonic). Of course, there is always a tonal reference in the latter case, even if its structure is foreign to the classical-orthodox harmonic culture.

A pure atonality takes away the listener’s ability to anticipate a “homecoming” sooner or later. Still, unlike seriality (or other similar avant-garde choices), it does not necessarily give up classical compositional syntax. In fact, according to music composition theory, a piece should be imagined with syntactic properties similar to those of a narrative. The motifs represent words, while the sentences, with a balanced trend in antecedent and consequent, are the counterpart of the linguistic namesake.

In particular, these should be composed with a semicircle or parabola in mind. From the beginning, the phrase can evolve freely until it reaches an acme, from which it descends to a resolution on the tonic through a cadence. This approach complements the phrase and offers our ears a satisfying sound experience. To understand the above, baasti thinks of the short line in the song “Happy Birthday to You.” The evolution seems to move away from the center of the word “best wishes” (precisely, with the syllable “day”). Still, it then quickly plummets toward it with the pattern associated with the words “to you.” To further realize what I am saying, it is helpful to try playing a scale (possibly provided with chromaticism) and singing the song following the ascending progression. The effect is unsatisfactory as, to the “narrative” conclusion that would like all emphasis focused on the words “to you,” an escalating sequence is associated that escapes unchecked.

So, atonality that respects classical syntax, as unbold as it might seem, provides the listener with the perceptual tools that promote memorization and, ultimately, understanding of the piece. Many pop music, jazz, rock, etc., fall into this category (even without being fully aware of it often). On the contrary, the decrease of tonality accompanied by the renunciation of classical syntax has been considered by many to be the authentic product of artistic evolution, but, at the same time, it ends up being an experiment that leaves one speechless (if not replaced by whistles).

To understand what I am asserting, I invite you to listen to Arnold Schoenberg‘s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, which we might describe as the main theorist and composer using this approach:

YouTube player

The composition is lovely. I don’t think you can say otherwise too lightly, but what impression does it provide? What stands out immediately is the sequential aspect of the sentences. A “movement” is not followed by a return action whose purpose should be to balance the tension with a subsequent relaxation. On the contrary, the piece evolves continuously, with no (or very few) returns to previously presented material.

Syntax is wholly disrupted, and the listener is “forced” to accept a musical experience without the prerogative of content anticipation. If classically, the competitive “game” relied on the continuous contrast between correct prediction and surprise (e.g., now the sentence closes with a cadence and returns to the central theme?), in this case, there is no alternative to surprise. Regarding information theory, this kind of music has a very high entropy, far beyond the limits to which most early twentieth-century audiences inhabited.

But while a syntactic disruption is often intolerable in literature (indeed, it is generally marked as a serious error since it affects semantics), in music, comprehension does not rely on explicit transfer of meaning. A correct sentence such as “John went to the movies and had a good time” clearly informs us of a subject (John), an action (going to the movies), and a consequent emotional condition (having a good time). The semantic impact could be devastating if I altered the structure without respecting the basic syntactic rules.

However, in music, this kind of meaning is not pursued. So, the listener, though displaced, could not say that he or she did not “get it.” At most, he might claim that he did not enjoy the music or could not follow its unfolding with due intellectual and emotional involvement. From this, we infer that a syntactic change in music is never as “dangerous” as in literature. The absence of a consequent in a phrase, the missed expectation of a cadence, the shift from a movement that would suggest a modulation to a leap to a series of chromaticisms, etc., can disturb the ear but not the brain.

What Schoenberg said (supported by many contemporary and later musicologists) is accurate. Habit is more robust than any syntactic or harmonic rule. It is absurd to pretend that a listener from the Baroque period could accept such music (although Bach, for example, made exemplary use of chromaticism). Still, the contamination that took place at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it possible to learn about “exotic” sounds that would soon become very popular.

At this point, the crucial “problem” is only aesthetic. Is the most driven atonality, good or bad, without syntactic or classical harmonic footholds? Beyond the (often questionable) ideological and philosophical choices, are the artistic results worthy of attention, or is it better to erase a piece of music history by covering it with a veil of shame?

I think the latter assumption is wrong. Despite the disagreement of ideas, no one should be allowed to devalue art too lightly. I am convinced that the 21st-century man’s ear is still unaccustomed to this kind of sound, primarily because of the spread of pop music, which makes extensive use of “classic” (albeit with ever-changing instruments, shapes, and timbres) and effortlessly catchy structures. However, many atonal compositions that are not overly cerebral (e.g., based on mathematical structures or matrices of permutations) continue to give emotions and evoke very intense atmospheres. I dare say he succeeds even more than many classical and Romantic composers, who either took refuge in natural imitation or, often, contoured particular motifs with complex harmony, creating a stunning but sometimes less evocative work than expected.

I conclude by inviting readers to listen to several pieces by atonal composers, such as, for example, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc. (I also include Leo Brouwer, being a classical guitarist myself), to read the titles (often essential for the correct decoding of the sound content) and, finally, to come to one’s conclusions. I would be delighted to read your comments along these lines and perhaps start a fruitful discussion that can only enrich each of us and broaden our cultural horizons!

Photos of Hulki Okan Tabak


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