The true strength of tonality

12-tone music is popping up all over the blogosphere lately, or, that is, discussions about it- how all those empty halls for performances of Beethoven symphonies were actually caused by Milton Babbitt and about how so much insipid monotonal neo-pasctichio music is actually a deeply personal response to the traumas of having studied with someone who knew Berio.

Elaine Fine recently wrote a quite thoughtful and perceptive piece on 12-tone music and music reservata, but it still left me feeling like something was left out.

Of course, a lot of these things read like group therapy. It seems that 80 years on, people are still mad about the longstanding tradition of  overblown rhetorical flourishes begun with Schoenberg (“this new method will insure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years)” to Boulez and Stockhausen. Word to the wise- don’t take these things to seriously. Public pronouncements from composers are a great tool for getting noticed, and hopefully getting their music played more often, but you don’t really believe what Stravinsky said about Beethoven and Gounod, do you? You don’t really believe what Debussy said about Wagner or Saint-Saens, do you? He copied too much from both of them for that to be true. People like to talk about how the serialist bullies dominated academia in the 60s and 70s, but didn’t Piston, Creston, Diamond, Schuman and Hanson all have academic positions in the US? As with everything, at all times, don’t believe all the hype.

However, nothing I’ve read lately seems to have captured what the real problems are with atonal music and the real strengths are with tonal music. To read most commentary, the problem with atonal music is that it is ugly and the strength of tonal music is that it is pretty. People like pretty music and don’t like ugly music. Those planet-raping modernist “composers” such as the diabolical Berio like ugly music and don’t like pretty music, which is why they write atonal music.

To quote Richard Taruskin: Balderdash!

I actually think one of the liabilities of much tonal music, especially the very best like Haydn and Schubert is that it is too pretty for modern ears. Especially for the young, emotionally intense crowd that we’re trying to attract, 20 seconds of Haydn can just sound like background music for a tea party. All the sinister wit and deep pathos, warmth and irony is completely missed- they find it just as incomprehensible as many others find Stockhausen. Noise music, atonal music, electronic music- all of these demonized modernist idioms- have all long since become mainstays of popular culture in rock, rap, dance, techno and movie music, while voice leading, modulation, tonal centers and structural chromaticism have long since been excised from the tool box of the popular song-smith.

No, ugly and pretty have NOTHING to do with it. I know, some of you reading think I’m wrong, and that you really cannot stand the abrasive cacophony of “modern” music, and you’d rather have a tooth pulled than listen to 10 seconds of a mature Schoenberg Quartet. Trust me, you’re wrong- you actually do like that sound, you just don’t know it yet, because you have not made an emotional imprint of that sound-world.

The real strength of tonal music has nothing to do with how pretty it is, or how harmoniously all those overtones ring in a triad, because the strengths of tonal music are apparent in modal, quartal and highly chromatic music. The amount of dissonance doesn’t seem to matter. What tonal music has is tonality, which is to say tonal relationships.

Tonality is possibly the most powerful tool ever invented for creating musical form, and it is no surprise that long forms grew out of an era in which composers were discovering ever more powerful expressions of a wider range of tonal relationships.

Tonality is all about relationships between keys. In our modern world, it is easy to see the classical voyage from tonic to “not the tonic” and back to the tonic as a bit too neat and tidy for a world of genocide, nuclear weapons and Dick Cheney. However, tonality doesn’t mean that you always return home, it means that tonal areas have specific relationships to each other, and that these relationships have intrinsic emotional meanings and resonances.

Whether it’s the magic and mystery of Schubert’s chromatic third relationships or Mahler’s metaphysical understanding of the myriad meanings of progressive tonality, Beethoven’s life and death struggle to get from D minor to D major or the simple perfection of a binary form tonic-dominant-tonic dance movement, tonality gives composers an unbelievably powerful tool for creating compelling musical architecture.

Musical architecture, form, structure- these are all rather cold sounding words. In another art form you could call these story, plot or even just meaning. Meaning is what brings people to art- when a listener gets to the culmination of a work and can feel the cumulative impact of everything they’ve heard so far, whether it’s a Beatles song or a Berg opera, that is the point at which their brain really begins to latch onto and bond with the sound world, the pretty and ugly, of the piece. If you’ve never felt the form of a piece of atonal music, your brain has never then gone that extra mile to imprint and internalize the rhetoric. Form is metaphor- tonal relationships give music the chance to express patterns of nature, of life, of distance and loss, of return and release. Tonality is the most flexible and powerful tool for expressing tension, for expressing distance,  and for creating a musical landscape as infinite, four dimensional and complex as the world we experience and try to understand in our daily lives.

This is not to suggest for a second that atonal music lacks form, but to point out that tonality (not prettiness) is the most powerful tool for creating and expressing form. In its purest form, 12-tone music eliminates that hierarchy completely, making all pitches equal, and only the order of pitches has meaning- the prime form of the row replaces the tonic.

The problem of form in serial music is one that many composers have meditated on and worked at for nearly a century with hundreds of spectacular successes. Some have resorted to sneaky forms of tonality- Boulez’s Messagesquisse, the subject of my DMA lecture recital, has a very clear tonic pitch of e-flat and a very clear dominant of a- natural, the first two pitches of the set SACHER (eb-a-c-b-e-d) the piece is based on. There are thousands of other ways of expressing form, but tonal relationships are such a simple and powerful tool, one does away with them at one’s peril, and if one does away with that tool without realizing the value and the power of the tool you’ve given up, then you’re really in trouble. I’d like to do a post on Berio’s Les mots sonts allés, which expresses in a very short time span and incredibly powerful and relevant form. Stay tuned….

NOW- hear some more hideously ugly, despicable music of Berio, that lout, that vile killer of all things beautiful. This is KW conducting a performance of one of the folk songs with Patricia Rozario from a recent broadcast. Listen carefully and you’ll get a sense of just how much he despised melody!

c.2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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13 comments on “The true strength of tonality”

  1. Steve Hicken

    Good post, Ken.

    “Form is metaphor”. That cannot be said often enough. Tonality presents clear means to create these metaphors, as you demonstrate in your post. Pantonal composers use others, such as color, rhythm, and even themes.

  2. John Brough

    Good post, Ken.

    The idea of “Tonality” has certainly changed through the eras. From the earliest church modes, through the stability and organization of Baroque “Functional Harmony” through chromaticism of the late Romantic – and has been the dominating force of the most of the music in the past 100 years or so as well – Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Howells, Schnitke, Rautavarra etc. It is unfortunate that publicity always leans towards the avant-gaurd. 12 tone music was a “phase” and will not survive the test of time, and most of the members of the 2nd Viennese school and their followers will only be a page of an intro to music text book. I have, however, performed Berio before … and it was a great deal of fun for us – probably less for the audience however.

    Best of luck on your DMA lecture.

  3. composerbastard

    now dont get me started over the definitions here…BUT

    tonal music?? Do you mean…Diatonic Music??? Pitch Centric Music??? Whaa???

    Are we talking 12T or are we talking Set Theory? Are we talking Generalized Intervals? Are we talking Generative Approaches???

    I don’t see what difference it makes. Pretty Ugly…Dissonant…tonal…systematic process can come from all teh above and get the same results…

    To quote Berg “Music is Music, Mr Gershwin…”

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi John

    Thanks for the comment!

    Sadly, my lecture recital is 8 years in the past, but at least I did pass it!

    I don’t agree with you that 12 tone music is a historic aberration. Probably 90% of the music written in the 18th and 19th century is now long since forgotten, and a tiny slice of the very best remains popular and interesting, and I’m sure the same will be true of all 20th C music, including 12 tone.

    Funny about Berio- his music, in my experience, goes down very well. I’ve seen more than a few standing ovations for the sequenzas, and I’ve even used Les mots sonts alles as an encore, even though it’s very “out.” It and the Boulez I referred to are quite fun to study, as they’re 6 tone music instead of 12 tone….

    The real power of tonality, that is the ability to creat tonal regions or key centers, is that it multiplies musical possibiliites because it means the composer can create different universes in which musical activity can take place.



  5. Elaine Fine

    One difference I have noticed about the way people play atonal music now as compared to the way they played atonal music 60-70 years ago (and of course, since I am 48, much of my experience is with recordings), is that people, particularly string players, now know how to play 12-tone music better in tune, and they know what to listen for beyond the pitches and the rhythms.

    Precise intonation, structural understanding, and resonant sound makes a world of difference when playing any kind of music, but with atonal music, particularly 12-tone music, a harsh sound and/or poor intonation can really turn the stomach of a listener instantly. When the music is atonal there is no musical tether to bring you back to reality like there is in tonality. And when musicians get lost when playing a piece of 12-tone music, it is nearly impossible to get back on track.

    Many of the “classic” pieces of the atonal repertoire come directly from the relationships of people in the rather closed Schoenberg circle. You kind of needed to be either a family member, a lover, or a disciple to get in; and you had to play by the musical rules and follow the often disfunctional family hierarchy. I haven’t yet found a piece of 12-tone music that I like as much as the stuff that came out of that circle.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine-

    Of course, I agree- this is the very reason the Boulez got into conducting. He felt one reason so much important 20th Century music was disliked and misunderstood was the appalling standards of performance. In his early career he was not only championing serial music, but also early 20th century masters like Bartok and Straninsky- we now weem to have accepted them. Boulez’ own music can be so incredibly French and sensual- some of it could just be much more out there Debussy, but that effect would never come through if it was all poorly played…..


  7. composerbastard

    “The real power of tonality, that is the ability to creat tonal regions or key centers, is that it multiplies musical possibiliites because it means the composer can create different universes in which musical activity can take place.”

    I’m sorry folks, but the nomenclature you all are using is really making me cringe. When the word tonality is used, it connotes the major and minor diatonic 7 note systems of common practice. However, the recognizable centric “weight” or a cognitive recognizable schemata that you refer to can be created using other pitch constructions that are not diatonic. These are not keys, but more like collections or groupings. Im my own world – sets.

    However, and I stress this, any set or pitch pattern or scale does not need to be so hard-defined to be cognitively recognized as centric, or even understandable. The brain, being an incredible filter and automat recognizer, can easily recognize pattern or center without hard coded diatonic scales or other collections. For example, it can use motivic contour.

    What does that mean? It means that the brain can filter out large amount of ambiguity and noise very easily and find clear meaning in very obscure sound that do not employ such strict pitch collections as scales and sets. It can find it in music that employ only partial / mutated (fuzzy) pitch collections and sometimes only contour. It means the brain can learn and remember these abstract new schemas and when presented with like material in the future, recognize and understand it. Pitch centers or melos or harmony or any of the constructs of music can all be “soft coded”.

    What’s my take on all this from a composer bastard perspective? Well, for one, its kind of a letdown to know that all those mathematical and other hard theoretics we composers come to love really has little to do with how the brain in reality can recognize and find meaning in musical presentation. Recent musical cognitive research has proven us wrong but perhaps in a good way. Its given us the freedom to use ambiguity more, or maybe not worry too much about it. It can still be great…

    The use of these “western compositional” systems are present mostly to guide the composer and give him defined choices where he can approach his work from day to day “in his cultural surrounding and background”. Anything else is a projection of hearsay, romance, art speak and fantasy by the composer or by political extremes of the public world he lives in and by his own education.

  8. Kenneth Woods


    i enjoyed your second comment once I got past the “Cringe” and other geralized whinging.

    There is a very reasonable point of view which says that all music is tonal, because any heirarchy or sense of home or a central point of reference establishes heirarchy, so any piece that has a first or last note or sonority is tonal, but I’m not really trying to debate semantics here.

    However, I strongly disagree without that diatronicism and tonality are synonymous. In most common practice music, diatonicism is something that we are most aware of in terms of our departure from it, whether it is in Beethoven or Haydn where we establish a tonic, go away then come back, but where the vast majority of the action is “away” or in Tristan, where we experience hours of implications of destinations and arrivals, but where we have to wait until the end of the opera to establish a tonic.

    Bartok, Hindemith and Debussy all work with tonality, even though they mostly avoid the traditional diatonic scales and triadic harmonies of earlier generations. Nonetheless, their music creates the multi-layered universe which is tonality..

    Anyway, I was going to site for first comment for intentionally missing the point and needessly spewing pointless jargon, but tthis one is at least, once past the petulant opening, rather interesting.

    Good bastard



  9. kac attac

    “tonality doesn’t mean that you always return home, it means that tonal areas have specific relationships to each other, and that these relationships have intrinsic emotional meanings and resonances”

    To me, one of the most important ideas raised during the 20th century is the possibility that sounds might NOT have “intrinsic emotional meanings and resonances.” Of course, you said “relationships,” not “sounds,” which has all kinds of other implications; I’ve always been peeved at the vagueness of that term as it is used by music theorists and historians. Anyway, this dichotomy between tonal and atonal, or even more specifically, tonal and 12-tone, sometimes leads us to overlook everything else. In the end, Schoenberg et al had a lot more in common with the “tonal” composers who directly preceded them than they did with much what immeditely followed them (or we know, at least, that Schoenberg saw himself that way, and it’s certainly not difficult to hear him that way either). You might find it silly to resort to this argument, but what would a person from outside Western culture who as never heard European common practice era tonal music think of it? I think it’s unlikely that it would have the same “emotional meanings and resonances” for them as it does for us. Is that beside the point? I’m not so sure. Cage spoke of allowing sounds to be themselves. That, to me, is a more important idea to unpack than the whole tonal-versus-atonal thing.

  10. composerbastard

    ComposerBastard has some additional ramblings whilse driving to whole foods today for his organic muffins and Soy Ice creme.

    Remember Old Arnie S.? At least historically they say he was trying to solve some practical problems with his own writers block and he devised 12T for those purposes. Yes, he was on a path for extending tension and expressiveness of German Romanticism while watching vagrant harmonies infect the tabloids of Brahmsian tonality. But, beyond these polemics of Unkle AS, I believe it was primarily just a psychological trick to help him get excited about writing again. In other words, I don’t believe half of what he says intellectually. And I very much believe you can find a centric pitch center in 12T music no matter how much you try to disguise it by taking away conjunctive connection, harmonic references and rhythm.

    The 12T music of Berg which forms the basis of the 12T Tonal System of Perle, is much different than the 12T system of Diapiccola, Webern, Bourlez, or Arnie himself. Yet I consider it 12T.

    Another thought to consider is the timeframe of understanding a work. If you hear a complex ambiguous piece only once, you are going to have a really hard time getting those newer patterns. I think thats why a lot of new music fails in a one shot concert hall setting, while it may succeed in an ipod setting. And while a lot of tonal old school music succeeds in the concert hall (you have those musical memories to use as a dictionary), and may fail in an ipod setting (you already get it).

    Which brings up really one question I haven’t decided on, and maybe you can:

    Given that music is understandable in this way, how much credence should you give to the systems that a composer used to write a work when you go to interpret that work in a performance situation?

    As a composer, my question is…how much freedom should I leave to the performer here in creating something new and artistically fresh, outside of the strict systems I employ?

    Only the conductor knows for sure…at least a brave and flexible one…

  11. DmichaelE

    Bernstein (in the Harvard Lectures citing Chomsky) and Richard Taruskin have argued that 12T music has no “underlying deep structure born out of the subconscious” in the way “natural language” does. Like computer languages, in 12T music your given the rules beforehand whereas in natural languages rules are abstracted “after usage,” not before. The subconscious desire to establish communication is at the heart of natural language and tonality (for the most part) evolved in much the same way as natural languages did.

    The move toward equal-temperament (whether you like ET or not—I recommend Ross Duffin’s book on this) can also be said to have evolved with the same communicative/emotive aspirations. A heightened desire for greater emotional expression in compositions led to the practice of tempering to allow for greater melodic and harmonic freedoms. (We all love thirds and sixths now, don’t we?)

    The music of Golijov, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road stuff, Tan Dun, John Adams, Paul Moravec, Alex Shapiro—music that tends to get the lion’s share of publicity these days—-is far removed from the music of Boulez/Carter/Babbitt axis. That says something.


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