The Disintegration of Tonality

Preface: As I said in my first post, some of the content on this blog will be taken from college essays I have written. This post is an essay I wrote for my thrid year Music History module. For this reason, this text is heavily referenced- if anyone knows of a neat way to insert footnotes in WordPress, let me know!

By the end of the nineteenth century, as the Romantic era began to draw to a close, it was becoming apparent that the traditional system of tonality was no longer sufficient for composers’ expressive needs. In a remarkable mere handful of years at the beginning of the twentieth century, composers increasingly abandoned the tonal language in favour of new systems and modes of musical expression. This disintegration was fully realized by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who declared the “emancipation of the dissonance” and is considered to be the first truly atonal composer.

Before Schoenberg

Before Schoenberg, however, we have a few examples of compositions which seemed to be attempting to do without the common-practice tonal system. In works such as his late Bagatelle sans tonalité (1885), Liszt was beginning to experiment with tonal ambiguity. This complex piece for solo piano is tonal in the sense that it is still based upon and rooted in a system of tonal relationships; however, it has no true tonal centre and is far more chromatic in its harmonic language than other works of its generation, foreshadowing the ‘true’ atonality to arise decades later. The famous “Tristan” chord from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) could be seen as another starting point for the demise of tonality. This chord, which “has been viewed… as a ‘crisis’ in Romantic harmony”(1), was considered daring and innovative in its day.

By the last decade of the century, composers were experimenting with bitonality, or the composition of works in two different keys, such as Strauss in the famous tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1892), which is written both in C major and B major throughout. The two conflicting tonal centres are the basis for the drama of the piece, and while the piece may still be described as tonal with relation to these two centres, the fact that Strauss chose to use this technique and that the finale does not resolve to either C or B, shows that traditional tonality was unable to accommodate Strauss’ artistic vision. The Russian Nationalist composers, due to their largely self-taught and individual approach to composition, also were notable for working outside the limits of established tonal language and “had developed unorthodox harmonic techniques which preserve tonality as an organizing principle while modifying significantly the classical tonality of Western European traditions.”(2)

Another interesting example is the American composer Charles Ives. As a child, Ives’ music training included teaching him to sing in quarter tones, and he was also encouraged to sing in one key while accompanying himself in another (3,4). This shows a remarkable foresight in realizing the limitations of the tonal system, and the latter is a particularly useful technique for understanding bitonality.

All these examples make it clear that, at the start of the twentieth century, certain musicians felt that the common-practice tonality was becoming an outdated language.

Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese school

German composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951), is widely considered to be the first atonal composer. Though his early music was written in a late Romantic style, with a “Wagnerian and Brahmsian modes of thought”(5), he later sought to reject tonality. Early atonal works such as Pierrot Lunaire (1912), written as a cabaret theatre performance, dispensed with tonality, and were seen as part of a wider ‘expressionist’ movement in German arts(6). Later works, beginning with his Piano Suite Op. 25, Schoenberg began to compose what is now known as ‘serial’ music.

Far from seeing himself as an iconoclast or revolutionary, Schoenberg believed that his compositional techniques were merely the next natural stage in the evolution of harmonic language, and believed he was continuing the tradition of the Classical and Romantic composers. Schoenberg addressed many of the issues concerning atonal music in a 1926 essay entitled Opinion or Insight. This article, in which he coined the phrase ’emancipation of the dissonance’, makes clear Schoenberg’s compositional philosophy concerning atonal music.

“A few of today’s composers still find a few tonal triads sufficient… however, most of them have noted what has been done by the works of Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Reger, Debussy, Puccini, etc., and they have drawn certain conclusions about harmony, whose outcome is recognisable as the emancipation of the dissonance.”(7)

This reinforces the earlier point that that atonality had been, at least in Schoenberg’s opinion, foreshadowed by the works of Romantic composers, and shows us that Schoenberg did see his developments as the natural progression of music.

It is important to note that Schoenberg’s music, though it is written without tonality, is not without structure; in fact, it is quite the opposite. In his early atonal works, Schoenberg’s music is often structured around a

“…minute intervallic cell, which may be expanded through the permutation of its compnents, or through free combination of its various transpositions, or through association with independent details. It may operate as a kind of microcosmic set of fixed intervallic content, statable either as a chord or a melodic figure or as a combination of both.”(8)

Several of the elements described here can be seen in Schoenberg’s later compositions. In serial music, all twelve of the pitches are arranged in a specific order, known as the ‘tone row’. These pitches are played in order; once a pitch has been sounded it may not be played again until the sequence is complete. In this way, no one tone may be given great precedence over any other, and tonality is avoided. The row may be manipulated in a number of ways to create more content. These ways are transposition (beginning the row on a different pitch but keeping the same intervallic order), retrograde (reversing the row) and inversion (inverting the row). By applying these techniques, a composer may turn a single row into as many as forty-eight separate rows.

Other composers associated with Schoenberg, most prominently his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, also began composing with this method around this time. Collectively, they are known as the Second Viennese School.

Below I have provided a chart showing the tone row from Schoenberg’s Piano Suite Op. 25, along with all of its permutations. In the notation below, P refers to the row at its prime, or original form. R refers to a retrograde of the row, while I refers to its inversion. The numbers following these refer to the transposition of a row; P0 being the “prime row” or the original form of the row, with P1 being that row transposed up a semitone, R5 being the retrograde of P5, and IR7 being the seventh transposition of the prime, inverted and then retrograded. Where numbers are used to describe an interval, they measure it in semitones.(9)

The tone row used by Alban Berg in his Lyric Suite (1926) is an interesting example because it is highly symmetrical; as shown in the picture here, the order of intervals is unchanged when it’s retrograded. This leads to some interesting effects when we attempt to expand the row to all its permutations.

P0 is the prime form of the row. When retrograded, this gives us R0, which as we see in the diagram, is identical to P6, which is the prime row transposed up six semitones.

When the prime is inverted, we get I0. This is identical to IR6, the inverted, retrograded, transposition of the prime. This shows us that, for this row, retrograding has the same effect as transposing by six semitones. Thus, there are only twenty four possible rows, rather than forty eight.

This is one of the most well-constructed rows in all of early serial music, and is a fascinating example of the complexity that this mode of composition allows.

Schoenberg was also opposed to the term ‘atonal’. In his mind, it could be interpreted as meaning “without tones” rather than “without tonality”, and as such, he preferred the use of the expression “pantonal”, meaning “using all of the tones”, as in Schoenberg’s music, all tones were treated as equal. As he writes in Theory of Harmony;

“…to call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary… If one insists on looking for names, ‘polytonal’ or ‘pantonal’ could be considered.”(10)

However, this term never reached popular use, and atonal is almost universally accepted today.

Justifications and Criticisms of Atonality

There has been some attempt to justify atonality theoretically, and provide a basis for the claim that it is a logical extension of tonal music. One such theory is that it is not dispensing entirely with harmony, merely becoming more complex as the harmonies used are found further up the harmonic spectrum.

As the above chart attempts to explain, throughout the development of music, the available palette of intervals has grown according to the harmonic spectrum. Thus while in the middle ages, only octaves, 5ths and 3rds were permitted (along with their inversions, the 4ths and 3rds), 7ths and later 9ths became accepted parts of harmony during the baroque, classical, and romantic eras, the tritone (referred to as the 11th in the above diagram) was part of impressionistic language, and finally in the early twentieth century the language had expanded enough to include intervals as dissonant and unrelated as the augmented fifth. This is supported, to some extent, by Schoenberg’s Opinion or Insight essay, in which he wrote

“Tonality’s origin is found- and rightly so- in the laws of sound… The easiest deviations [in sound] to grasp are those that can most easily be related back to the underlying tonic. These are grasped immediately in cases where their resemblance to it is at a maximum, less immediately where more remote formations can only be felt as logical if one relates them to another, or several others, lying in-between… So this is the true reason for the marked development of tonality: to make what happens easily comprehensible. Tonality is not an end in itself; but a means to an end.”(11)

Schoenberg here seems to be saying that tonality is merely a convenient way to make music comprehensible to the performers and the audience. A consonance is not any more valid, in a musical sense, than a dissonance, but that a dissonant interval is merely a more complex relationship than a consonant one, or, as he elaborates later, “consonance and dissonance differ not as opposites do, but only in point of degree.”(12)

The theory of atonality arising from increasing degrees of the harmonic spectrum is reflected, to a degree, by musical trends that have arisen since serialism. As you progress further up the harmonic spectrum, the harmonics become more increasingly unrelated to the tempered scales required for both tonal and atonal music to function. A recent trend of “spectral” music, where the pitches are derived from the harmonic spectrum of specific notes, uses these untempered pitches, related only to the fundamental of the spectrum, as shown in the chart above, rather than conventional tunings. It may well be said that, at least in this form of music, the very theoretical basis of tonality has been rejected; and that in a sense, tonality’s disintegration is complete.

There was no small degree of opposition to atonal music in the early twentieth century. Political ideologies were one strong, though by no means the only, source of this opposition. The speech given by Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propoganda in Nazi Germany, for the 1938 Dusseldorf Music Festival in which he claims “The decline of German spiritual and music life in the years 1918 to 1933 did not spare music”(13) and refers to the “German masters, who with true artistic command had created immortal works of German tonal art”(14) demonstrates this, as does a 1936 review of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in Pravda, the official state newspaper of the USSR, which reads

“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sounds… To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.”(15)

In these oppressive societies, atonal music was often suppressed, and in Nazi Germany it was designated “degenerate”(16), along with jazz, modernist literature, and abstract painting.

There was also, and there still is today, intellectual criticisms of atonality as a concept. Composer Alexander Goehr wrote in 1989

“A great deal of music written in the last seventy years or so cannot be regarded as a straight-forward continuation of Classical or Romantic music, either in the way it is conceived or the way it is meant to be listened to. Background-foreground perception is inapplicable here because, in reality, insufficient background is implied. Continuity is fragmented or constructed of events unrelated to each other, pitch succession too complex to be memorable, and constructional procedures too difficult to be perceived as aural logic.”(17)

This shows that, to Goehr, Schoenberg’s notion that atonality is just more complex tonality may indeed be correct, but that it has become too complex for it to carry any meaning for the listener.

Another interesting point to consider is that the term “atonality” does not tell us very much about a piece. It lets us know what the piece is not, by defining it according to a lack of tonality. However, tonality is only one way of imposing order upon pitches, albeit the one most historically prevalent in Western music. Most modern art music is written without tonality; therefore, labels that tell us how the music is arranged, such as “serial” or “motivic”, are surely more useful than one that tells us how it is not arranged. It is like arranging music into that which is written for strings, and that which is not written for strings; while a lot of music can be described truthfully with the second category, it’s not particularly useful. This is backed up by Perle, who writes

“…it is impossible to state the fundamental conditions of atonality in general, except in a negative way, merely stipulating the absence of a priori functional connections among the twelve notes of the scale. Musical coherence requires additional limiting factors, but these are not reducible to a set of foundational assumptions in terms of which the compositions that are collectively designated by the expression “atonal music” can be said to represent a “system” of composition.”(18)

Even in music that was still nominally tonal, the influence of atonal compositions were to be felt. For example, if we are to look at some of Prokofiev’s Musiques d’Enfants, a suite of piano works that are considered to be in the “neoclassical” school, we can see tone clusters19, wide leaps in register20, abrupt modulations, and an extended chromaticism beyond that found in late Romantic music- surely a result of the influence of the atonal composition that was increasingly becoming the norm in Europe. Though composers were still writing in the tonal language, the fact that tonality was no longer the norm had irrevocably changed the way tonal music was written.


I think that this examination of “the disintegration of tonality” has shown that the gradual decline of the common-practice musical language should not be seen as the end of an era; rather, it should be viewed upon as the natural outcome of the musical experimentation of the great Romantic composers, which led to the “emancipation of the dissonance”; or as a series of new beginnings that allowed music to develop and flourish in ways previously unimagined, and unimaginable, right up until the present day.


  1. ”Tristan’ chord’, Grove Music Online, accessed Jan 2nd 2011,
  2. Jim Samson, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920, 2002 reprint (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 1-2. Retrieved through Google Books
  3. Paul Griffiths, ‘Ives, Charles’ from Oxford Music Online, accessed Jan 2nd 2011,
  4. J. Peter Burkholder et. al., ‘Ives, Charles’ from Grove Music Online, accessed Jan 2nd 2011
  5. O.W. Neighbour, ‘Schoenberg, Arnold’ from Grove Music Online, Jan 1st 2011
  6. Paul Griffiths, ‘Expressionism’ from The Oxford Companion to Music, Jan 2nd 2011
  7. ‘Opinion and Insight’ in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein (ed.), Leo Black (trans.), (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), reprint (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1975), 258. Retrieved through Google Books,, Jan 1st 2010
  8. George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality, an Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, 2nd edn, (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 9
  9. This is the most common method of notation for notation in the analysis of atonal music. For further information, read Joseph N. Straus, Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, 3rd edn, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005) 4-8.
  10. Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, Roy E. Carter (trans.), based on 3rd edn (1922), (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 432.
  11. Stein, Style and Idea:Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, 259
  12. Ibid., 260
  13. Joseph Goebbels, ‘Speech for the Dusseldorf Music Festival’, in The Twentieth Century, Robert P. Morgan (ed.), Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History Vol. 7, (London, W.W. Norton and Company, 1998), 127.
  14. Ibid
  15. Pravda, ‘Chaos Instead of Music’, Ibid, 128
  16. John Roselli, “Censorship” from Grove Music Online, accessed 12th of January 2011
  17. Quoted in Arnold Whithall, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1999), 1.


  •  Morgan, Robert P., Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History, Vol 7: The Twentieth Century (W.W. Norton and Company: London, 1998)
  • Perle, George, Serial Composition and Atonality, an Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, (London: Faber and Faber, 1962)
  • Prokofieff, Serge, Musiques d’Enfnants Op. 65, Authentic Edition (London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1989)
  • Samson, Jim, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920, 2002 reprint (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)
  • Schoenberg, Arnold, Theory of Harmony, Roy E. Carter (trans.), based on 3rd edn (1922), (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)
  • Stein, Leonard, Style and Idea:Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984)
  • Straus, Joseph N., Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, 3rd edn, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005)
  • Whithall, Arnold, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, and The Oxford Companion to Music, accessed online at

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