Atonal Music Sucks

Sympathy for the Serialists

Good gravy. This is going to take a while. Bear with me, gentle readers!

Sympathy for the Serialists

You probably hate serialism. Am I right?

It’s probably a truism to say that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad,

A truism. Hmm. Art appreciation is not subjective? Oh, you’re beholden to the canon. I bet you really, really like music written in the 18th-19th century German tradition. Me too! But I also allow for other music. To be, you know, good or bad.

but now that tonality is back in vogue

It is!?

and the serialists are on the retreat,

They are!?

it may be a good time to step back and take stock.

It may!?

My principal motivation has been the audition of a number of new releases and reissues by some mediocre-to-truly-miserable 20th century tonal composers,

You…found some bad tonal composers? Awesome. There are tons. (Now who’s being subjective?! Hint: It’s me! Aesthetics are subjective. See?) I totally want to hear more about these composers.

an experience which has driven home just how desperate the situation must have seemed at the turn of the last century if you happened to be working within the German classical tradition.

Wait, what? There was lots of…bad tonal music written because…the situation was desperate…because those atonal freaks were taking over? Also, and not for nothing: the German classical tradition, by the turn-of-the-century, was only one of many things happening in the world of music. Right? The Javanese gamelan orchestra came to Paris in the 1889 World’s Fair, where Debussy was in attendance. See? German classical tradition is one of many, many musical things that were happening. 100 years ago. And even now! It is (while awesome) not the best, or most important, or anything. At all!

It has also become clear just how inadequate traditional music history is in describing (never mind explaining) exactly what was going on at the time.

You are now going to correct this inadequacy once and for all. I can’t fucking wait.

First of all, there is the obvious and somewhat artificial distinction between “tonal” and “atonal” music.

I…can’t even begin. You are wrong. Please bear with me, as this is going to get technical for a minute. Well, a paragraph.

Tonal” music takes one primary tone (the “tonic”) as the reference point for an entire piece. The harmony and melody all relate to this tone as primary. All of the other tones, or pitches, have specific harmonic or melodic functions in relation to the primary tone. The pitch one half-step below the tonic (the “leading tone”) has a strong tendency to “lead” to the tonic tone. Similarly, the chord built on the fifth tone above the tonic (“V”) also tends strongly to lead to that important structural note. Tonality is by nature a heirarchal system where one note is priveliged above the others, and their functions are subservient to, and predicated on, it.

Atonal” music eschews this principle of heirarchy. The idea of one note being primary is cast away; this leads to new ideas about melody and harmony. The origins and history of this idea are beyond the scope of this…whatever this is. It is basically the opposite of what I wrote above this just now. I am already tired.

It is artificial because when most people think of music they don’t classify it on this basis at all.

They don’t?

What most of us really mean by “tonal” is “melodic,” which is a different matter entirely, although tonality certainly has its role to play.

This is false. Atonal music is often, if not mostly, highly melodic. The melodies are not conventional, but they are still melodies! The strategy of composition and/or function of pitches is very different. But melody is still a primary concern for atonal music.

The reason for the emphasis on music’s harmonic aspect is simple: it is the quality most easily analyzed and discussed by music theorists.

As a music theorist, I have to say that you are an idiot. There are numerable theories dealing with melody. Prioritizing harmony is the domain of a particular branch of theory. Or branches. Still, your unfounded assertion is…unfounded.

To date, no one has ever been able to quantify the expressive qualities of melody,

This is not true. Or, at least, many have tried. Like this guy. Or this one.

but harmony can be addressed systematically in wholly technical terms.

It can, yes, sort of. But that fails to address any other aspect of music.

Still, the fact is, there’s plenty of atonal music that is quite melodic, indeed ravishingly so (think: Berg).

I…yes! You are correct. Why are you contradicting yourself? Stop contradicting yourself!

All of the generally acknowledged great composers were, in some form or another, melodists, able to express in just a few bars of tune those personal qualities found nowhere else.

“Generally acknowledged” = the canon canon canon canon canon. Also, Beethoven is often derided for his melodies. (Not by me.) We’re back to your “two kinds of music, good and bad” thing. Which sucks.

Rather than seeing 19th century music history as a gradually evolving “crisis of tonality,”

It was. Tonality became more and more saddled with its own weight as composers experimented with stretching its boundries. The late Romantics (Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, et al.) took tonality to its limits, beyond which was visible atonality. As early as Liszt (in his Bagatelle sans tonalité) composers saw the edges of the system breaking down. But you don’t think so, do you?

is seems more logical to view it as both composers and listeners did themselves: as an ongoing search for new types of melody.

The search for new types of melody? I would recommend atonality! Or, perhaps “world” music and/or folk influences, for starters. Or, you know, some kind of pioneer.

From this perspective, the situation in greater Germany looks all the more interesting, and becomes increasingly understandable.

The Germans couldn’t find any new melodies? Or new types of melodies?

By the end of the 19th century, German music had, melodically speaking, effectively written itself out. The works of Brahms and Wagner, each in their own way, demonstrate this quite clearly.

You are seriously going to argue that Wagner and Brahms (for fuck’s sake!) were bad melodists?

Wagner, whose early work reveals him to be at best a spotty melodist,

I guess so! Good luck with that.

avoided traditional instrumental music entirely and evolved a style that allowed him to construct his music dramas on a basis more congenial to his strengths: using brief, pregnant motives.

You…I…he was an opera composer. Melodies in opera are…different, than, say, the theme of a symphony’s first movement. Jesus!

Brahms faced a bigger problem, in that he worked in the large, abstract forms created by the great composers of the classical period, and the basis of these media was melody.

It was really harmony and form (not to promote your previous argument). Melody is, of course, important, but the structure of the “large, abstract forms” is harmony-driven. Also, Brahms wrote awesome fucking melodies.

Writing good original tunes was, as Brahms himself recognized, one of his greatest challenges. His recourse to Hungarian melodies, alongside other supplements to his propriety thematic material (such as his frequent acts of thematic homage to past masters), was a frank acknowledgment of the importance in finding distinctive--or at least appropriate--ideas with which to populate his musical structures.

I…Symphony No. 4, Op. 98. Intermezzi Op. 117. Horn Trio, Op. 40? Have you ever heard Brahms?

Outside of Germany, things were going swimmingly.

Imperialism was totally underrated. That, and the Nationalism that consumed Europe and lead to WWs I and II! Awesome.

The great nationalist composers such as Dvorák, Sibelius, and the Russian school were exploring a vast fund of melodic archetypes inspired by their native folk music.

Nationalism is outstanding! Fairly, these composers integrated their folk music into their compositions, which is fine. Or even great. But your larger point is:

In France, music in large abstract forms had never been a priority, and when it became one at the turn of the 20th century, it proved infinitely adaptable to the French approach of “borrow from wherever but call it French.” Melody never had it so good.

Fuck the French! But your larger point is:

Only in Germany did the aesthetics of nationalism result in a doctrine of musical purity that made it virtually impossible for native composers to absorb new influences, and renew their stock of musical materials.

They had no folk music? So they were forced to turn to…progressive techniques? Those bastards! Also. Are “folk music” influences really new? Aren’t “new influences” more like musical developments (atonality, serialism) than adopting folk tunes?

Composers that attempted to do so, like Mahler, already an outsider by birth and ethnicity, were either spurned, or like Richard Strauss found themselves avoiding abstract forms such as symphonies, concertos, and chamber music entirely.

Those poor, poor, early 20th century Germans.

Enter Schoenberg and his crew.

What is this, fucking “Entourage”?

It’s worth remembering that the twelve-tone method was born as a rejection of free atonality, and has as its basis a new way of thinking about melody.

Yes! What is your fucking problem?

The most immediately appealing thing about it, aesthetically, is that it represents a closed system: as “pure” as any there is.

Yes! What?

From a strictly intellectual point of view, and ignoring the question of depth of musical expression,

Which you completely define using tonality. And/or the canon. Right?

it would seem to be ideally suited to the creation of the kind of large, abstract forms that had come to symbolize musical greatness, German style.

It’s not, really. The miniaturization of the early 12-tone works conincides with the rejection of the large, Romantic orchestral genre. The eschewing of the Romantic tonal doctorine, logically, coincided with the discarding of the huge, sweeping grandeur of Romantic forms. This seems very logical to me. Compare Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with Webern’s Symphony, Op 21. The compression of expression matches the compression of scale.

At least, Schoenberg thought so. It has tremendous appeal on paper, which is how most third-rate composers conceive of music anyway. That the final result may sound awful is always a secondary consideration.

Some people actually like this music. Maybe not too many. But that doesn’t mean you get to put it in the “bad” category. Even inferring that Schoenberg is a “third-rate composer” will get you some profanity-laced barbs from me. To wit: You are a fucking ignoramus. You have never listened to Pierrot Lunaire. You dismiss atonal music out-of-hand. Wait, I missed a profanity! OK: Fuck!

More to the point, there is plenty of twelve-tone music that does not sound awful, in which the method can be used to create a personal, expressive, and even appealing melodic style (take Rautavaara, for instance).

Not-awful twelve-tone music! Hedging. Better, but back-handed.

The serial revolution also aided in the creation of music based on criteria other than melody, a difficult proposition in non-programmatic pieces, but one which a few composers have managed triumphantly (consider Dutilleux).

You are so fucking generous.

We also know this because we now find composers writing tonal music equally devoid of traditional melody, and the result as often as not simply sounds ridiculous, the musical equivalent of trying to communicate in a language devoid of nouns. At least the atonal stuff does not lead the ear into expecting something that it has no intention of delivering.

Crappy tonal music is caused by crappy atonal music, which is basically all of it. Canon!

At a time when many composers of that nationality despaired of the creating an individual melodic style that was also aesthetically “German,” the opportunity to write music on a different basis entirely must have been all but irresistible.

What the fuck does this sentence mean? Atonal composers basically…could not help themselves from doing what they did? What!?

It’s not their fault that the vast herd of worthless lemmings at the university level

Jesus fucking christ.

took advantage of what started as a purely local artistic solution, and turned it into a style that allowed them to be at once modern and resolutely unoriginal, not to mention impersonal. Even so, there’s a certain honesty in the pride that they took in their sterility.


More to the point, greatness transcends the technicalities of style. It's a quality that may have seemed in short supply during the recent "twelve-tone interruption," but this is largely an illusion. It's always been a precious commodity.

I think it’s awesome that you’re the arbiter of greatness of composing. Fortunately, I’m the arbiter of greatness in criticism! And you, sir, are not great. You’re the atonal critic, as it were. Although in my book that’s a compliment, in your book it clearly is not.

Not the least of the atonal revolution’s accomplishments was to remind us of this fact, particularly now, when once again we are tempted to award the accolade of “great” to music whose principal value lies in its being merely inoffensive.

You are wholly offensive. You do not deserve the accolade “great” because you fail to be inoffensive.


Sator Arepo said...

Apologies for spacing errors. This was a long one, and the formatting issues were...bitchy.

Murderface said...

I am compelled to comment before finishing the entire piece.

"It is artificial because when most people think of music they don’t classify it on this basis at all."

So, because most people don't think about the distinction, the distinction is artificial? Popularity is the arbiter of the natural/artificial dichotomy?`

That is a troubling assertion.

Sator Arepo said...

Many things about this were troubling. The entire website is troubling. I'm sort of giddy, like a kid who's just discovered a huge secret trash heap!

Anonymous said...

Atonal music: the product of decadence. Wagner would be proud.

PS. Heard any good Wagner arias?--Oh, silly me...

Sator Arepo said...

Anonymous: Nice.

Augustine said...

I've just discovered this blog post, and I have to say how much I love it. I'm a college student myself, and apparently the only one at my university who actually ENJOYS atonal music. I'm not putting on a show or pretending- I really like the harmony of the Second Viennese School. So I have to give a thumbs up for defending the atonal branch from that awful article.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Atonality has to be defended by self-righteousness? Amusing. Mozart, Beethoven = immortal, Schönberg = nice try.

Phil said...

Gotta love people whose knowledge of atonal composers lays comfortably within the realm of the Second Viennese: unaware of later directions and attempting to describe it as a whole when completely unfamiliar with it.

Of course: listening to composers like Messiaen, Boulez, Lutoslawski, Perle, Wuorinen, Lindberg and Carter (among many, many, MANY others) would raise self-awareness of fallacious statements. Ignorance is a warm blanket...

Brian Dean said...

"Tonality became more and more saddled with its own weight as composers experimented with stretching its boundries. The late Romantics (Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, et al.) took tonality to its limits, beyond which was visible atonality. As early as Liszt (in his Bagatelle sans tonalité) composers saw the edges of the system breaking down."

What if I respond to that by the following:

In the mid to late 20th century there were composers who were doing great things with tonal music. In fact, more people talk about these composers, than talk about Schoenberg and his ilk.

I am thinking specifically of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but there are many others.

Your response? Maybe you don't consider them to be "true" composers?

Anonymous said...

"You have never listened to Pierrot Lunaire."
I have listened to Pierrot Lunaire, and I think it totally sucks.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that atonal music, defined in the narrow sense of the free tonality of the Second Viennese school and serialism in its various forms, is that is does not stimulate the pleasure centers of most people's brains and therefore they are not going to like it. You can argue that this is great music and that people should like it until you are blue in the face, people are not going to like music that does not create sensual pleasure from listening to it. The fact that a small minority of people actually may really like it, rather than having convinced themselves that they like it because the music establishment has convinced them that they are supposed to like it, indicates that their brains are wired differently. This minority definitely is entitled to listen to it, but they do not have the right to dictate what music is performed by orchestras and opera companies or what kind of music gets published and performed.

Anonymous said...

By the beginning of the 20th century mainstream tonal music had largely run out of ideas and was virtually incapable of doing anything original. That is definitely true. But Schoenberg's solution was to throw the baby out with the bath water by abandoning tonality, rather than expanding it. What was needed instead was for music to break free of the major-minor straightjacket and open itself up to a much greater variety of scales. The most important, but definitely not the only, scales it needed to open up to were the renaissance modes that had been discarded when tonal music developed: the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes, that were widely used up to the early Baroque. This opens classical music to a much greater variety of music than was possible under the major-minor system. What this permits is shown by the very beautiful music of Vaughan William, like, for example the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The possibilities this offers are best shown in the shamefully neglected works of Alan Hovhannes. Only now is there a rebirth in modal music by composers like, for example, movie composer James Horner.

Anonymous said...

CORRECTION: The statement "the free tonality of the Second Viennese school" in my previous posting should obviously read "the free Atonality of the Second Viennese school.

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Anonymous said...

Fuck this