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  Does `atonal` music still exist?  red5 at 21:52 on 25 April 2006

I'm new to composing and have been interested to listen to peoples pieces on the random listen feature of this site. I'm surprised by how many of them use tonality. It's really quite refreshing to know that other people out there are still writing using good old fashioned harmony. Does anyone actually still think that 'atonality' (whatever or whoever that may imply) still has some cultural significance?

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  piargno at 16:34 on 26 April 2006

Oh most definitely! One can almost argue that some minimalism pieces, which may "sound tonal", aren't actually atonal, but rather the playing out of certain ideas or certain philosphies. But there also exist many pieces of jazz that have no tonal center, and of course people are still trying to squeeze the rag out of 12-tone music. Personally, tonality plays a big role in my music, but I am far from being a "tonal" composer. I, along with so many people, have gripes about the definition of tonality, and I want to write a book suggesting a new definition. Even a work like the last mvt. of Bartok's 4th string quartet can't really be called "atonal." Or Debussy repeated note etude - it starts and ends in g-minor, but you wouldn't really know it unless you saw the score! Oh... music definitions... good times!

Good question though. One can argue that atonal music doesn't have as big of a role now as it did at the turn of the century going into the 70s, but with the Spectral music developments, I think it still has a voice.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  red5 at 20:24 on 26 April 2006

But is spectral music 'atonal'? If a composer, Gerard Grisey, for example, derives his piece from a trombone pedal tone (one note) is this tonal? It revolves around a tone so perhaps it is! It's very interesting isn't it?... I listen to Boulez's Marteau sans maitre and find it overwhelmingly grey whereas I find Grisey, Saariaho etc. fascinating.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  Hugh Boyle at 20:23 on 27 April 2006

I think the question of atonality is difficult to address. I think tonality is best summed up as “a system of writing music according to certain hierarchical pitch relationships around a "center" or tonic.” ( Your statement is interesting because if anyone “derives his piece from a trombone pedal tone (one note)” he is therefore creating a “hierarchical pitch relationship around a "center" or tonic.” Therefore, in doing this, one could be considered to be creating a new system of tonality rather than using atonality.
Take Schoenberg for example, when he discarded tonality in his creation of serialism he didn’t actual discard the notion of having “hierarchical pitch relationships around a "center" or tonic.” For example, in his Piano Suite (op.25) he used the tritone as a substitute for the dominant in an attempt to make the work more ‘accessible’. Another reason he had to do this is that he used traditional forms which require a tonic and dominant, in order to make his new system more ‘accessible’ to audiences.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  piargno at 02:49 on 28 April 2006

Well, I guess the conclusion is that there is not an agreed to definition of tonality, but once that is established, then people can hash out the details. Personally, I feel that a piece can center around a pedal tone and not be tonal (like this piece called "The Cuckoo", but I'm blanking on who it's by... sorry! or perhaps Lontano?? or the Fanfares etude, both by Ligeti). But there should be something in between the words tonal and atonal to account for the millions of pieces in this grey area. What about pieces that begin and end in two different keys, like Brahms's Schiksalslied? It's definitely a tonal piece, but it has two tonal centers. Does this count??

Do you think bi and tri tonality falls under the category of tonal? If a piece has 2 tonal centers, then really how can it be strictly "tonal"?

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  Geoffrey Álvarez at 14:37 on 31 May 2006

If one compares the musical universe to the natural one, the 'tonal' world could be likened to the behaviour of matter in a gravitational field similar to our own, whilst the 'atonal' world is the same matter but subject to the extreme distortion found near black holes; thus the hitherto emphasised tonal dialectic becomes atenuated to such a degree that any perception of a tonal centre is almost impossible. Furthermore, as tonality is really a subset of modality, atonality is a subset of tonality: the eight church modes become two in the classical period, the major and minor keys become one vis a vis Stauss and Mahler and finally, in Schoenberg's Second String Quartet, with tonal relations of the most obtuse kind, tonal forces are almost vanquished.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  John Robertson at 16:21 on 04 June 2006

Well I've no idea if I'm near a black hole or not (!), but I realised after a considerable while of writing music that did its best to avoid any kind of tonality, that my ear really was 'tonal' - I can hear intervals very well in a tonal context, I hear the fourth pulling downwards to the third and so on, but in an atonal context I can't hear intervals at all. So I then looked back over my work and realised tonality (in the broadest sense covering modalities of all kinds) was always unconsciously fighting to find it's way into my music. The music I write now I don't feel is a traditional return to tonality, but I have learned to accept those sounds and harmonies that I love, even where my old self might have flinched at their use, and I feel I'm being a lot more honest to myself as a result.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  Geoffrey Álvarez at 20:47 on 04 June 2006

Well, for me, I like circling round 'black holes', teasing them, and even entering them and being spat out at the speed of light in some distant location... (The diminished seventh played a similar role facilitating movement around the tonal space.) I think it is matter of personal choice how near such singularities we like to play and not a reason for censure, providing the game is fun and interesting. Whatever language one adopts, there are always problems, and the languages nearer home, in my opinion, are as hard, if not harder to deal with than those in the distant distorted 'atonal' realm as relations between notes in a 'tonal' context are assumed, often wrongly, to be more 'stereotypical' or 'given' than allegedly arbitrary atonal ones.

  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  at385 at 13:35 on 08 June 2006

Back tracking a little, I think that bi and tri-tonality are 'tonal', material still relates back to one tone, despite there being different central tones running concurrently.

Let's try a different tact:

Twelve tone music is not atonal because the rows intervals all relate back to one tone. Just like in traditional 'tonal' music the central tone modulates as necessary (e.g. O1, O4, RI9 etc.).


  Re: Does `atonal` music still exist?  Geoffrey Álvarez at 17:25 on 08 June 2006

It is difficult to take one note of a 12-note row independantly of another, as they have different functions to tonal scale degrees. If, for example, the first note of the row is c, whilst this might suggest the key of C, if the next note in the row is F sharp, we would then have two choices at tonal/modal interpretation of the two notes considered together: G major, or C Lydian. There are interesting 'grey' areas, for example, the C E flat G B chord heard in the first movement of Berio's Sinfonia may be 4 adjacencies of a tone-row, but also can be heard as I7 in C minor (relating it to Mahler's 2nd Symphony upon which it is related). When I was invited to Berio's home to discuss my own music, I told Berio that I thought his Concerto for Two Pianos ended in on a similar tonic seventh chord in G minor, his reaction was interesting...