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Composing Atonal Music

Discussion in 'Recordings [BG]' started by page, Nov 15, 2005.

  1. Ok .... I wasn't entirely sure where to put this , so sorry if its wrong.

    Ok , besides being a bassplayer, im a classically trained trumpet player. Heres my only problem, I can't hear key. By that I mean, when someone's listening to music and can tell you what key it's in, yeah I can't do that. Put sheet music in front of me and I can tell right away without looking at the key signature but I can't hear it. And that drastically affects my playing. I get out of key when improvising often . So I look toward Atonal music, not only because of the key problem but also because Im a fan of avant-garde which uses alot of atonal stuff.

    So heres my first question, how does one go about composing atonal music?

    How do you ignore key without sounding like ****?

    Basically a low down of composing atonal would be good.

  2. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    I stopped studying classical theory. But, it has always seemed to me that the concept of 'key' fairly quickly falls away as you progress into more advanced compositional theory. Like, Take film scoring for instance, in terms of keys, you can't necessarily say "the main theme to harry potter is in whatever" because, well, it's not really defined by a key as much as it's defined by tonality.

    I think trying to think outside of 'key' is only half the equation. You can be not thinking of keys but still be tonal(like, modal music comes to mind) But that tonality, put alongside 'key' mentality would likely sound atonal.

    Shrug. I listen to a fair amount of avant garde weird **** with no distinct tonal or key center, but it's all fairly relative I think.

    I can't say I can give any advice about HOW to go about doing this, because it's always kinda seemed to me that, when you stop thinking about keys, you have 12 notes to play with, you can do whatever you want with them. If it sounds right or good to you, that should be enough.

    I hope someone more knowledgeable has some input, cause it is an interesting subject no doubt.
  3. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    The whole point of atonal music is for there not to be a key.

    The foundation of atonal music is what's called a "tone row", which basically means you use all twelve tones of the chromatic scale and only repeat a tone after having played all the other eleven. Tone rows can be created to emphasize certain intervals and be written by numbers rather than by tone names.

    I can't seem to find my atonal books right now, but check out the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
  4. Matt Till

    Matt Till

    Jun 1, 2002
    Edinboro, PA

    Tone row sounds like an interesting concept. This is an interesting thread. I wish I had something more to say.
  5. Josh Ryan

    Josh Ryan - that dog won't hunt, Monsignor. Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2001

    read some of this for an interesting perspective on alternate composition/s /methods.
  6. DemoEtc


    Aug 18, 2004
    Good answers so far. In my opinion, the actual 'tone row' concept was developed by Schoenberg as a compositional tool, and he's known for it, as well as his student Webern (one of my favorites).

    But Tone Rows don't necessarily equal Atonal music. It was Schoenberg's answer to composing with the concept of the least amount of tonal center as possible.

    Nor does Atonal music equal Tone Rows - see what I mean? It was one guy's solution to the problem.

    It almost looks as though you, Page, are in a small way running from the problem of not hearing 'key' by delving into atonal music. A couple of things on that: when you're stepping out of key (or a central tonality) you almost have to 'hear' better than normal because you have almost nothing else to rely on. That's why Schoenberg did his thing with the rules of the Tone Row. You have to, at some point, create a set of rules and stick to them if you're not using your ear. Tone Rows are fun to work with and in the hands of a master composer like Schoenberg or Webern, it's a highly organized mathematical sort of music that works - esp in the case of Schoenberg, in my opinion. Some of his stuff, even without tonal center, is SCARY-emotion stuff!

    So if you want to delve into it, go for it - it's really fun stuff.

    BUT if you want to go totally atonal, you'd have to throw even his rules out the window and just go...well, atonal. And THAT's the part where your ear is the only thing you can rely on at all. It's a pretty rarified atmosphere you get into there. It's good to go there even if you wind up not using it and going back to more tonal stuff. It's like you're in space and there's nothing to grasp onto except your intuition about things - and that's the beauty.

    It's also the lesson, in a way, because when you're into it, you might tend, as I did, to 'crave' tonality. You start hearing tonal concepts and ideas in your head and have to decide whether you're going to have to throw them out simply on the basis that they 'do' sound tonal. You might come up with some pretty tasty stuff, but do you toss it or keep it?

    That's an interesting position to be in and you might, at some point, realize that you 'are' actually hearing the stuff in your head - which I think is what you were orginally getting at.

    --Which might be a case where more practice 'listening' to the inner music, and less time practicing 'music' will help.

    That said, the part of your original post I quoted: 'without sounding like..."

    See, if you're going to do this, you have to throw out even that part of things. Sounding like "". I mean, examine the reason you'd worry about something like that. It sounds bad because...why? Because you already have a preconcept of what music 'should' sound like, and everything and anything that doesn't sound that way, sounds 'bad.'

    It's a prejudice of sorts to think that way, because by saying that, it shows that your worries are in no way connected to what you're trying to do. They don't go together. 'Good' music; 'bad' music. Where you say you wish to head - you have to throw all that aside if you really want to get into it. To have 'no rules' so to speak, means you have to throw out even the rules that say you can't have any rules, and that includes your own personal disposition and attitude toward what is valuable in music.

    And for most of us having grown up in Western music cultures, that means any subconscious disposition toward 'tonal' music.

    Lose that, and you'd be on your way, pretty much.

    Then, perhaps, take a walk out in a forest somewhere, or go down to a river or stream or the ocean. Listen to the true 'atonal' music that surrounds you. Noise. Pure, simple, never repeating sounds that mix and harmonize in ways, I think perhaps Schoenberg would have envied. It's all there already, it's just...well us humans tend to want things to be 'repeatable'; to be able to put things in little boxes and have them close at hand to be recalled and replayed and renewed whenever we wish. But the true atonal stuff, it's not like that. It never repeats.

    Sometimes I sit listening to the water fountain near a place where I work, and space out on it and appreciate it. The sounds never repeat; the patterns of water never are quite exactly the same - ever. The way the water splashes is never the same and it goes on and on hour by hour, day by day, and I sit and have to laugh when my mind starts to try and find some pattern, some balancing to the equation.

    Because it's perfectly balanced, and there's also no pattern!

    And so I tell myself, "Man, if you were a hot**** composer, you'd be able to transcribe that...."

    --But what part of it, since it never ends? And to what purpose.

    So that, to me, is the true 'atonal' stuff. I think maybe Arnold and Anton heard the real stuff and tried to find a way to write it down so others could hear it too. But...everyone can hear that stuff by themselves when you think about it.

    So it still comes back to YOU hearing it.

    Best regards and good luck! :)
  7. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    There is indeed a difference between 12 tone composition and atonal composition. 12 tone is one approach to composing music without key center, but there are other ways.

    A simpler way is to approach the idea of key as simply a collection of pitches that you wish to use in conjunction with one another. For example I am working on a song now that is based of a melody using D#, E, F#, G, A#, B and C. This isn't a song that lends itself easily to being in a certain key. Though you could argue that its E harmonic minor with an added b5 its easier to approach atonally.

    Humberto Echo once said "It is necessary to create constraints in order to invent freely" and I think that really applies to writing music outside traditional harmonic structures. You still need to create rules for a peice regarding how you want to use certain pitches. For example in my song I don't want have a stable sounding V-i cadence, so I constrain myself and avoid the use of the B as a chord tone. Instead most of my cadences are either F# Major - E minor (II-i) or C Major - E Minor (VI-i). Neither are accepted cadences but they work wonderfully in the context of the song.

    In a lot of ways its harder to write atonally. You face a constant stream of decisions about what notes to use with no other guideline than what you have decided sounds good in the context of what you are writing. Ultimately though, that is what composition is, tonal or not.

    If you are seriously interested in studying atonal composition I encourage you to check out a book called "20th Century Harmony" by
    Vincent Persichetti. It deals with a number of approaches to atonal harmony as well as discusses the historical and cultural reasons behind the drive towards atonality seen during the mid 1900s around the world.
  8. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    At this point in music history you can compose any way YOU want... If it is atonal, tonal, polytonal, etc. Not many follow a school per se any more al la Schonberg/ Stravinsky back in the 20th C.

    I do not recommend any 20th century harmony books unless you already havea grounding in counterpoint and 18th and 19th century harmony.

    As a published composer i have met few of my contemporaries that actually compose music that fits into any school.

    The way i see it you can either just start composing wtihout regard for what came before or you can study for years and then start composing.

    Tash, tell Keith i still have a portfolio of his paintings in my attic if he wants them...
  9. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    I forgot to say that what you hear is what counts. Screw pre-compositional process.

    Too many composers are caught up in HOW they composed rather than the Sound of the piece.

    We are dealing in a sonic medium, not a theoretical vacuum.

    Go with your ear...it will not let you down.
  10. DemoEtc


    Aug 18, 2004
    Really well put, especially "We are dealing in a sonic medium, not a theoretical vacuum."
  11. fretlessrock

    fretlessrock Supporting Member

    Aug 8, 2002
    While I don't like the strict definition of "atonal", I look to composers like Varese, and moreso Zappa, where the musicians might be given cues (verbal or otherwise) regarding their "inspiration". But my feeling is that if it is composed then it probably isn't atonal. :p If you choose not to define a conventional tone center then you are free to distribute pitches as you like, or not at all.

    Also, you could put your compositional energy into the rhythmic structure and leave the tonality to the performers. Zappa did this on sections of "Approximate", for instance.
  12. I remember studying serialism and expressionism at school, and all the other kids in the class were all 'Whats this crap?! Its awful! This isn't music!' etc. but I found it intruiging.

    Some stuff about Serialism
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Schonberg didn't like his serial 12-tone row music being called "atonal" he preferred the term "pantonal" as more appropriate - as in : all keys at once, rather no tonality!! ;)
  14. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    Bruce is absolutely but Arnold's disciples took things even further; down to serializing rythms and everything else that could be. Stockhausen's early works are a good example of hyper serialism.
  15. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Messiaen does include elements of serialism in rhythm as well - but like Stockhausen - there's so much else in there as well!! :)

    Messiaen has written some intresting stuff about composition - but his books are very expensive and hard to find - I picked up snippets from the web!! ;)
  16. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    It is actually pretty easy to compose "12 tone" music once you have the matrix figured out. Make your tone row and go to town. You may not want to hear it ever again but try it once and that will give you a bit of perspective. The art in 12 tone comp is to create something that not only you want to hear but hopefully your audience will want to hear it too.
  17. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    I much prefer Messiaen to Stockhausen...Mostly cuz Stockhausen has an Ego the size of the universe...
  18. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    Harder to write atonally ? Are not the same decisions faced when writing tonally ? Mozart certainly never stayed in G major when he wrote a piece. I think in general people that make assertions that is it easy to compose tonal music have not themselves composed much tonal music.
  19. sargebaker

    sargebaker Commercial User

    May 2, 2004
    Montreal QC CA
    owner/builder, ISLAND Instrument Mfg.
    interesting stuff in this thread.
  20. FractalUniverse

    FractalUniverse Guest

    Jan 26, 2002
    Valparaíso, Chile
    i really think that the importance of the new viennese school (schoenberg, webern, and so on) developed a new tool that helps the composers to go even deeper in the process, the same did bach with his very much modal aproach, beethoven, you name.

    the thing is that for this composers it was the reason of their lives to see where the study of serialism was going to take them. and now we have the fruits of that process wich is the "tool" of serialism wich is not the end by itself, the thing is that if we now want to put the kind of feeling that this music produces in the person, then you can use it.

    Hindemith was a german composer that realized that tonality was something that wasn't good to loose so he did an essay where he propose people to go back to tonality but with the new tool of serialism.
    he has his own new sound, and he also developed a 4ths interval harmony thing.

    new composers nowadays use every tool imagined (not necesarely invented before) they use counterpoint, they use serialism, the sure know how to use tonality. and you can make very beautiful music mixing everything with good taste and concience of what you want to do.
    messiaen is a great example, he even use birds(the rithm patterns), and indian music.

    and important thing to mention is that the XX century wich recently passed was esctrictly about experimenting, and the direction nowadays seems to be about integrating which makes a fresh and innovating thing by itself, ask arvo pärt or people like uhm... einojuhani rautavaara.

    there's something that someone commented(this is not me) me wich is that in strictly tonal music, dissonant things are the carriers of the most expression, but in serialism when a consonant interval happens it seems that it has much expression. ( maybe because you feel at home after the heavy stuff)
    i don't know if a person can generalize this much, but i thought it was worth sharing.

    i might be wrong in something
    just my opinion