Author Topic: Atonal and tonal music  (Read 22470 times)

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Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #20 on: November 21, 2016, 01:32:11 PM »
Based on experience, I beg to differ.  A good part of what makes atonal music difficult is the misconception that it is fundamentally different in some way from all other music.  I have run into posters on the internet who are absolutely convinced that atonality is the bane of all music until they got over their fear of the idea of it and actually listened, at which point they realized that atonality was actually nothing at all.

As for the idea that people "know what it is like," that's wrong, because if they're going around saying Schoenberg's music is tuneless (and people today still do), then clearly they don't know what it is like.  They lack the ability to listen to it and understand what it is they're hearing.  Furthermore, there is no quality which can be said to apply to all music called atonal.  The pieces stuck with that label have no characteristics in common.

There is an important group of people that declines to refer to "atonal music" as atonal, and that's most composers whose music has been stuck with that label.  I know I don't think of the music I write as atonal, and neither did Schoenberg, Carter, Babbitt, Bartok or others think of their own music as atonal.

Quite frankly, I think it is this sort of hectoring that turns people off Schoenberg more than the term "atonal." Maybe some people think Schoenberg is tuneless because they listened closely and did not recognize any attractive tunes. Some people have the same impression listening to Bach or Mozart. Personally I love Schoenberg, the early late-romantic music and the later serial (pantonal) music. But the line of argument "you don't like the stuff I like because you haven't tried hard enough" gets tired very fast.

Now maybe we can return to the topic. I voted Carter because he is the only composer listed for which I have heard even one string quartet. I listened to one string quintet by Simpson, and probably something for some sort of wind instrument and string quartet. A horror.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 01:35:52 PM by Scarpia »

Offline ørfeo

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #21 on: November 21, 2016, 01:34:51 PM »
Based on experience, I beg to differ.  A good part of what makes atonal music difficult is the misconception that it is fundamentally different in some way from all other music.  I have run into posters on the internet who are absolutely convinced that atonality is the bane of all music until they got over their fear of the idea of it and actually listened, at which point they realized that atonality was actually nothing at all.

As for the idea that people "know what it is like," that's wrong, because if they're going around saying Schoenberg's music is tuneless (and people today still do), then clearly they don't know what it is like.  They lack the ability to listen to it and understand what it is they're hearing.  Furthermore, there is no quality which can be said to apply to all music called atonal.  The pieces stuck with that label have no characteristics in common.

There is an important group of people that declines to refer to "atonal music" as atonal, and that's most composers whose music has been stuck with that label.  I know I don't think of the music I write as atonal, and neither did Schoenberg, Carter, Babbitt, Bartok or others think of their own music as atonal.

If you think that referring to music as "12-tone" rather than... I guess a version of "zero-tone"... will change perceptions of the music then I think you're going to be disappointed.

Perhaps you're right. Perhaps there's some subliminal button that will be pushed where people will be happier with adding 11 tones than they were with subtracting 1. But I'm doubtful.
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Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #22 on: November 21, 2016, 01:53:08 PM »
I used to love the second movement of Bruckner's Seventh, until I heard it called adagio. I went right off it, then and there. Turned my stomach it did.
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Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #23 on: November 21, 2016, 02:06:21 PM »
I used to love the second movement of Bruckner's Seventh, until I heard it called adagio. I went right off it, then and there. Turned my stomach it did.

He originally marked it pan-dagio but the publisher forced him to change it.  8)

Offline ørfeo

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #24 on: November 21, 2016, 02:27:50 PM »
Labels do mean something. After all, if that Adagio was called "Diatribe against the Jew" you might think twice. I'm always fascinated by the fact that among the proposed titles for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral was Toffs in Heat...

But the fact is, as sanantonio and Scarpia have both pointed out, the term is "atonal" is widely used and understood. People have at the very least a shared core understanding of what it refers to, and that's entirely separate from whether they like that kind of music or not.

Indeed, we can only have this conversation because Mahlerian has a shared understanding of what the word refers to.
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Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #25 on: November 21, 2016, 02:45:25 PM »
Talking about music is hard enough without this kind of semantic quibbling.  It is only possible at all if certain terms have agreed upon meanings and are accepted as such.  They become a useful shorthand for describing what we hear and like or dislike.  Atonal is one of those terms.

Strange that the dictionary is never mentioned in the protracted semantic arguments that appear on this and other discussion boards.

From Merriam-Webster

Quote
atonal:

marked by avoidance of traditional musical tonality; especially :  organized without reference to key or tonal center and using the tones of the chromatic scale impartially

What's the problem?


Offline Gurn Blanston

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #26 on: November 21, 2016, 02:58:43 PM »
Strange that the dictionary is never mentioned in the protracted semantic arguments that appear on this and other discussion boards.

From Merriam-Webster

What's the problem?

As I see it, the problem is that the word itself can easily be construed as meaning 'not using tones', which is precisely what the parts of it indicate. So whenever someone wishes to be intentionally or unintentionally ignorant, that old silliness gets dragged out and led around the barnyard. Whoever chose the word to begin with (it wasn't Schoenberg, I'm quite sure) either intentionally or inadvertently used a totally inappropriate neologism which has made trouble ever since.

It's really a pain in the ass for intelligent, educated people to have to go through this bullshit every time the subject of music-which-doesn't-center-around-a-specific-tonal-center is discussed.

I hate having to moderate other people's prejudices, especially when they actually know better.   $:)

8)
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Offline SimonNZ

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #27 on: November 21, 2016, 03:00:42 PM »
Strange that the dictionary is never mentioned in the protracted semantic arguments that appear on this and other discussion boards.

From Merriam-Webster

What's the problem?

(edit: x-post)

One problem is that that definition is only used with anything close to accuracy by academics and maybe a heartening number of GMGers.

Its been clear on less enlightened sites and in some of our outside experience that its picked up too easily as a pejorative or dismissive term for something alien or ugly and something to be avoided - usually without actual exposure to the work being "accused", and reinforcing the negative expectation of those approaching the music for the first time, and ultimately coloring their eventual experience.

To the point that the term seems to have gone through some language-change over the last century, where the pejorative use is now the most common usage, and the textbook usage a distant second.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 03:06:28 PM by SimonNZ »

Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #28 on: November 21, 2016, 03:26:57 PM »
As I see it, the problem is that the word itself can easily be construed as meaning 'not using tones', which is precisely what the parts of it indicate. So whenever someone wishes to be intentionally or unintentionally ignorant, that old silliness gets dragged out and led around the barnyard. Whoever chose the word to begin with (it wasn't Schoenberg, I'm quite sure) either intentionally or inadvertently used a totally inappropriate neologism which has made trouble ever since.

I never thought of it that way. To me the term evokes the right meaning, although I would admit that Schoenberg's "pantonal" is perhaps more fitting. Is "serial" any better?

Its been clear on less enlightened sites and in some of our outside experience that its picked up too easily as a pejorative or dismissive term for something alien or ugly and something to be avoided - usually without actual exposure to the work being "accused", and reinforcing the negative expectation of those approaching the music for the first time, and ultimately coloring their eventual experience.

To the point that the term seems to have gone through some language-change over the last century, where the pejorative use is now the most common usage, and the textbook usage a distant second.

Pejorative to whom? To subscribers to symphony concerts who eagerly listen to the orchestra play Beethoven, then clear out at intermission when they see Schoenberg or "something modern" next on the program? They would stay if it weren't for the term "atonal?" I think it is the date of birth of the composer that gives them the clue that they must make their hasty escape before the doors are locked and their flight would be marked by dirty looks.

More broadly, I think if you asked the average American what impression they get from "atonal music" the overwhelming answer would be "Huh?."
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 03:28:31 PM by Scarpia »

Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #29 on: November 21, 2016, 03:30:44 PM »
Indeed, we can only have this conversation because Mahlerian has a shared understanding of what the word refers to.

False.  That's the existential fallacy.  In actuality I have found that no two people mean the same thing by the term, and I honestly have no clue what people think it means when they say that Schoenberg is atonal while Debussy is not.  Both composers avoid traditional tonal harmony and its functions; despite the (obvious) differences between their styles, they are similar in that respect.

I never thought of it that way. To me the term evokes the right meaning, although I would admit that Schoenberg's "pantonal" is perhaps more fitting. Is "serial" any better?

Serial only refers to music using rows or other kinds of series for its structure, so it would include Schoenberg's later works, but not Op. 11 or Pierrot lunaire or Varese's Ameriques.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 03:45:48 PM by Mahlerian »

Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #30 on: November 21, 2016, 03:46:30 PM »
The words arelevant, atopical, auseful, and ainteresting spring to mind at this point.
Added: I forgot asinine.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 04:11:36 PM by Ken B »
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Offline SimonNZ

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #31 on: November 21, 2016, 03:46:51 PM »

Pejorative to whom? To subscribers to symphony concerts who eagerly listen to the orchestra play Beethoven, then clear out at intermission when they see Schoenberg or "something modern" next on the program? They would stay if it weren't for the term "atonal?" I think it is the date of birth of the composer that gives them the clue that they must make their hasty escape before the doors are locked and their flight would be marked by dirty looks.


I see. We've met before, haven't we?

If not, then I have to ask you, as I asked someone else expressing exactly this view if you really believe "the date of birth of the composer that gives them the clue that they must make their hasty escape", and what exposure to contemporary classical that could be based on? And repeat again that I've never witnessed this phenomena, and that even if true it would prove only that those doing the running were branding themselves as closed-minded, and probably missed out on hearing something wonderful.

But, yes, reinforced negative preconceptions are exactly the problem you're describing there (and actively participating in) - including the popular response to "atonal".
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 03:50:23 PM by SimonNZ »

Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #32 on: November 21, 2016, 04:59:44 PM »
I see. We've met before, haven't we?

If not, then I have to ask you, as I asked someone else expressing exactly this view if you really believe "the date of birth of the composer that gives them the clue that they must make their hasty escape", and what exposure to contemporary classical that could be based on? And repeat again that I've never witnessed this phenomena, and that even if true it would prove only that those doing the running were branding themselves as closed-minded, and probably missed out on hearing something wonderful.

But, yes, reinforced negative preconceptions are exactly the problem you're describing there (and actively participating in) - including the popular response to "atonal".

You really are anxious to classify me. Schoenberg is one of my favorite composers, including his atonal works. But I recognize that it's not for everyone, and not just because of the term that is applied to it.

Offline ørfeo

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #33 on: November 21, 2016, 05:24:33 PM »
Mahlerian you've now twice thrown in Debussy as if it's self-evident that using chords in the way he did is exactly the same thing as completely abandoning tonal centres.

So yeah, I guess I should congratulate you on successfully casting doubt on the meaning of "atonal". What a pity no one on GMG actually came up with the widely accepted meaning, NOT incorporating the music of Debussy, in the first place.

That's the irritating part of your criticisms. You're not just telling a handful of posters that they're wrong, you're trying to tell us why we should abandon orthodoxy and adopt your minority position.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #34 on: November 21, 2016, 05:28:38 PM »
I'm happy to accept the term atonality as 'not having a tonal center'. If I'm ignorant for doing so, oh well, life goes on as they say. Schoenberg may have disliked the term, but it's only negative if you perceive it to be a negative thing. Since Debussy was mentioned (or thrown under the bus or whatever), he loathed the term 'Impressionism'. I'd imagine him not having any kind of grievance if he were alive in today's time if he knew what that particular term meant nowadays.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #35 on: November 21, 2016, 05:44:21 PM »
Mahlerian you've now twice thrown in Debussy as if it's self-evident that using chords in the way he did is exactly the same thing as completely abandoning tonal centres.

Neither Schoenberg nor Debussy completely abandoned tonal centers.  What I'm talking about is writing music in a way different from traditional harmony, using keys and functional progressions.  I did not say that their techniques for doing so were the same, merely that neither fits under the rubric of common practice tonality.  Like I said before, I hear tonal centers in all music, and so do others who write "atonal" music.

Debussy's treatment of dissonance as not needing resolution, his use of chords for their color over their function, are antithetical to the "tonal" system of hierarchical functional relationships.  After all though, in human history, tonality is the exception rather than the rule.  Most music is not tonal.

So yeah, I guess I should congratulate you on successfully casting doubt on the meaning of "atonal". What a pity no one on GMG actually came up with the widely accepted meaning, NOT incorporating the music of Debussy, in the first place.

That's the irritating part of your criticisms. You're not just telling a handful of posters that they're wrong, you're trying to tell us why we should abandon orthodoxy and adopt your minority position.

I'm trying to explain why the "orthodox" definition is incoherent.  If you read the article in the New Grove Encyclopedia, you'll see that atonality is not considered an especially coherent concept at all by musicologists.  Composers reject the term for the same reason that I do: it explains absolutely nothing about the music.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 05:48:34 PM by Mahlerian »

Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #36 on: November 21, 2016, 05:53:38 PM »
I wonder if we would have this discussion if the commonly used term were atonic, which would pass Mr Blanston's argument from etymology. I rather expect we would, with every post the same ceteris paribus.

Which suggests to me we are not arguing from etymology or meaning at all. Some people object to the music being labeled at all. Don't label it! A stricture not applied to pop, jazz, baroque it seems. Nor to contrapuntal, monophonic, or microtonal music.  Labels can, as Orfeo notes, have drawbacks, but they can be useful, as my use of the label "Orfeo" demonstrates. I think that's the case here.

Mahlerian is surely right that atonal as a label has negative connotations for most people. But it's not because of any etymology or prior meaning of the word. Most people just don't like the music. Cue James.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #37 on: November 21, 2016, 05:58:58 PM »
Mahlerian is surely right that atonal as a label has negative connotations for most people. But it's not because of any etymology or prior meaning of the word. Most people just don't like the music. Cue James.

It is surely true that people who use it pejoratively do not like music they label "atonal," but it is also true that those who use it pejoratively will label music as "tonal" if they like it regardless of its harmonic content.  I have seen others redefine music by Scriabin, etc. as tonal, just because they don't think it sounds "atonal" to them.

When the term atonal first came into wide circulation in the 1920s, it was applied to just about all modern music, from Mahler to Debussy to Ravel to Stravinsky to Hindemith.  Schoenberg and his school likely retained the term only because their music never gained the same level of acceptance.

Words are important because they frame perception, and the perception that Schoenberg and his school produced music that is contrary to tradition, rather than an extension of it, has damaged their work from the beginning.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 06:01:04 PM by Mahlerian »

Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #38 on: November 21, 2016, 06:01:14 PM »
Neither Schoenberg nor Debussy completely abandoned tonal centers.  What I'm talking about is writing music in a way different from traditional harmony, using keys and functional progressions.  I did not say that their techniques for doing so were the same, merely that neither fits under the rubric of common practice tonality.  Like I said before, I hear tonal centers in all music, and so do others who write "atonal" music.

Debussy's treatment of dissonance as not needing resolution, his use of chords for their color over their function, are antithetical to the "tonal" system of hierarchical functional relationships.  After all though, in human history, tonality is the exception rather than the rule.  Most music is not tonal.

I'm trying to explain why the "orthodox" definition is incoherent.  If you read the article in the New Grove Encyclopedia, you'll see that atonality is not considered an especially coherent concept at all by musicologists.  Composers reject the term for the same reason that I do: it explains absolutely nothing about the music.

It doesn't really matter what you object to, Mahlerian. The term is here to stay whether you like it or not. Personally, there's nothing wrong with putting a label on something if it helps the listener in some way understand the music. Not everything has to be spelled out in absolute terms. I believe you're being argumentative and seem hellbent on trying to prove a point that doesn't really help anyone come to any kind of understanding other than to understand what your opinion is. I'm of the opinion that the term atonality doesn't hurt the composer or their music, but I do feel, however, that the listener is the one, and only one, who can decide for themselves what they'll take away from the music whether it be positive or a negative.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #39 on: November 21, 2016, 06:05:55 PM »
It doesn't really matter what you object to, Mahlerian. The term is here to stay whether you like it or not. Personally, there's nothing wrong with putting a label on something if it helps the listener in some way understand the music.

If it did aid understanding, that would be one thing.  Can you tell me a single way in which the term atonal helps you to understand the music of Schoenberg or anyone else?

I think that, on the contrary, the existence of this nonsensical label has hindered understanding.

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