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What is Atonal Music? Music Theory in a Nutshell

What is Atonal Music? Music Theory in a Nutshell

The atonal system was a large break from the traditions of before. Western music first began with simple intervals in the time of Pythagorus. This system marked intervals like a unison and an octave as the most tonal and pleasing to the ear. In the middle ages, musicians used church modes. Monks even attributed certain religious qualities to specific music intervals like the fourth. In the Baroque Era, composers began to use what is now considered major and minor scales which escalated into the mathematical perfection or Mozart. True Western harmony was born.

The 20th century saw a break from traditional Western harmony. When Arnold Schoenberg experimented with atonality, he developed a complex musical and mathematical system. Essentially, a composer would arrange the twelve notes of a scale in a specific row, and then compose using those rows (in that order alone) to eliminate any sense of tonality. Eventually composers began creating complex matrices to develop these rows. Schoenberg's works were revolutionary. However, while contemporary composers learn this style of composition, generally, most composers do not use strict atonal music theory in their works.

While atonal music does seem arbitrary when you listen to it, the method to calculate the matrix of tone row lines is quite involved and exact. There are tools online now available that will help composers and music students develop the tone rows without having to worry about calculating them.

Here is one such site: http://composertools.com/Tools/matrix/MatrixCalc.html

By clicking on the image, you will see a dozen permutations of the line. A composer can take these lines and create music, always being sure to follow the order predetermined by the matrix.

Today the term atonal may refer to any sort of music that avoids a tonal center. Many works are atonal without using serialism.

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