More On Tonality And Atonality
I hope you've gotten a clear idea of what tonality is from my last post, and here's more on this important area of music. The system of major and minor keys became established by around the 17th century, and has been the norm ever since, but other scales, or arrangements of the tones C to C existed before this, and were still used at times after .
These are called modes, and their names are of Greek origin. A scale is an arrrangement of notes C-C with different possible intervals between the notes; intervals are the distance between two notes. Intervals can be seconds, that is either C to C sharp or C to D, thirds, C to E or E flat, fourths, C to F or F sharp, fifths, C to G, sixths , C to A or A flat, sevenths , C to B flat or B, or octaveves, C to C.
The intervals may be major or minor , C to E is a major third, C to E flat is a minor third, perfect, C to F or C to G, diminished, C to G flat, or augmented, C to F sharp(the so-called tritone,or devil in music.)
The Greek modes use different arrangements of intervals from the major or minor modes. They are Dorian, Ionian, and Lydian etc. But for most music we know today, major and minor are the norm.
As I mentioned in my last post, in the late 19th and early 20th century, composers started writing music in which the sense of key, or tonality became vaguer and was weakened, such as Claude Debissy and the eccentric Russian Alexander Scriabin (1872 -1915). The Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874 -1951) took the leap into atonality, where all sense of key has disappeared, and there is no tonal center in the early 20th century, and many other composers followed him, in their own way.
In order to prevent this music from being chaotic, Schoenberg invented a new system of writing music after some years of experimentation with atonality . This is the 12 tone system . Here, a composer takes the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, C to C, and arranges them into an order, 1-12. This is the basic tone row.
Now, all 12 tones of the scale are equal ; there is no center. The system is very complex, but I'll try to explain it in a nutshell. The row can be manipulated in numerous ways ; theoretically, none of the 12 tones must be repeated before all are heard, or some sense of a key center will remain.
The row can be be put into retrograde, or reverse. It can also be put into an inversion, or a revearsal of the intervals of the original row. if a note goes up in one direction, such as C to F, it must go down in the same direction an interval. The retrograde can also be inverted, creating the retrograde inversion.
Then, the row can be transposed to any of the degrees of the scale. If the first note of the row is E, the same arrangement of intervals can be made starting with any of the notes of the chromatic scale . This is similar to the way the notes of any melody can be arranged to be in any key .
So there are an enormous number of permutations of the 12 tone row . The number of possible chords is greatly increased. Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern (1883 - 1945 ) adapted this system but did so in his own way, creating a distinctive style of his own.
Later, other composers such as the Frenchman Pierre Boulez (1925 -) also a famous conductor, created something called "Total Serialism ". Here, not only the tones of the scale are strictly organized, but other elements such as dynamics(loudness and softness) and rhythm etc are serialized in an extremely complex way. This resulted in extremely esoteric works which still baffle many music lovers.
However, other composers, such as the German Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963 ) rejected the whole twelve-tone system and continued to use tonality, albeit without mere slavish imitation of the past. There are also methods of writing in two keys at the same time (Bi-tonality), or several (Polytonality) which some composers used, such as Stravinsky and the Frenchman Darius Milhaud.
Today, there is absolutely no concensus on the right way to compose ; some composers such as Boulez dogmatically insist that the only valid method is his serialism, and others still reject atonality. Other composers, such as the maverick Californian Harry Partch (1901 - 1974 ), rejected the whole western system and wrote music dividing the scale beyind 12 tones.
Partch was the Guru of microtonal music, which uses more than the simple 12 tones familiar to most listeners. Partch even created his own fanciful and exotic instuments, and invented a 43 tone scale ! His music cannot be performed on the standard instruments at all. and his disciples have preserved the strange invented instruments . You can hear this strange music on CD. Classical music is a very diverse thing !