Tonal music and Atonal music– what are they really?

I know I tend to sound like a broken record in my diatribe against atonal music, but the truth of the matter is I'm not opposed to atonal music. A number of great composers have written music I very much enjoy which can be considered atonal in terms of design or at least nothing like the classical definition of tonal (as Mozart or even Mahler might recognise).

So, what am I really railing about? Mark Stryker put it perfectly, "The problem was never atonal music per se but bad atonal music and an ideologically driven musical culture that distrusted overt references to the past and composers committed to communicating with audiences." His article speaks about four American composers who have made their mark in the classical world by writing expressive music that appeals to an audience. They also accept the influences of previous great tonal composers, rather than feel they need to create something wholly new.

Part of what I object to is the notion that an audience needs to be educated in order to enjoy a piece of music. Yes, a musical education has helped me gain a greater respect for Mozart and Beethoven, but their music was enjoyable before my education.

In an article by Tom Jacobs, he remarks "I think it's possible a wider audience would fall in love with this music if we had the kind of education that taught us how music history works and what a composer is trying to say. You may not get the warm response people have with Mozart, but I think you'd get respect. People would be intrigued by it."

A number of Webern's pieces are like this. When you understand the intricate workings behind the composition there is a mathematical fascination with his music, but I still don't particularly enjoy listening to much of it. I personally think he had some interesting ideas, but the music feels ugly and disjointed (even though it is incredibly tightly woven together), so IMHO much of his music fails to be good music.

Not every one agrees with me - and that's ok. In the blog The Detritus Review Sator Arepo rants against a critic who obviously doesn't like 12 tone music. I'd hate to think what the author would think of my article, although I doubt I would ever want to call myself a critic - a composer with an opinion, certainly, but to go so far as to feel qualified to actually critique someone's performance and or work as if I had some greater authority to judge whether something is good or not - well, I'm just not there yet!

Ok, I'm not a fan of 12 tone music either, but I gather that Sator is. Cool! There is a lot to be said about 12 tone music and composers (like myself) have learned a lot about creating new worlds of sounds because of it. The serialism that followed it and the various other forms that are still taking place in music all because of the "Big Bang" of Schoenberg and his cronies. As much as modern music owes to this music and as necessary as it is for new composers to strive for even more and distant musical worlds (atonal music isn't lacking tone, it is just a new way of looking at how tones are put together) - what I am trying to stress that it is just as necessary for other composers (like myself) to keep striving for a new sound that still has audience appeal, appeal to an audience that doesn't require a masters degree in music to appreciate it, an audience that enjoys it at the first hearing, and is eager to hear it again (and again).

What I rebel against are the critiques who say the music I write isn't worthy because it isn't new enough, or that is has a melody or parts of it follow recognisable chord progressions. I like melodies! And so do a lot of other people. Using recognisable chord progressions is like writing a story referencing other fairytales; it gives the audience an immediate reference point from which to jump off. For me the joy is in the twisting of the recognisable into a new form, telling a new story that is only enhanced by the recognition of the old.


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