What is atonal music? | Classical music

When creating a piece of music, composers have certain frameworks in which to develop their ideas – they will select particular keys and use the tonic (the first note of the scale in any key) as the center point from from which to create melodies and harmonies to help flesh out their song, for example.

Composing in this way is known as “tonal music” and it provides structure and creates complementary tones that blend well together.

What is atonal music?

However, atonal music tears up this set of “rules”, taking a completely different approach, where there are no noticeable keys or typical harmonies. Compositions in this style can seem a little chaotic or even downright weird compared to traditional tonal compositions, but it still takes skill to get it right.

Who invented atonal music?

The atonal style of music took off in the early 20e century, with Arnold Schoenberg at the forefront of the genre. Schoenberg advocated “12-tone music”, where each of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale is played only in relation to each other, rather than in relation to a set key. This means – unlike tonal music, which has the tonic at its center – there is no fixed focal point in this style of atonal music, as each note has equal importance.

Examples of atonal music

Schoenberg’s work includes Pierrot Lunaire; Variations for orchestra and his Six small pieces for piano (Opus 19). Other composers who followed in Schoenberg’s footsteps include Alban Berg – his opera Wozzeck and Piano Sonata, for example – and Anton Weberwho composed Keyboardstuck among other atonal works.

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