Atonal Music: All you need to know

Updated: 6 days ago

What is the exact definition of atonal music? What composers have written or write atonal music? What makes it different?

Atonal Music Definition

When listening to our favourite songs, we tend to connect a lot with Western tonal music.

This bond happens because usually, western classical music has a tonal center, something that the ear perceives as "home".

However, there are situations in which music does not always gravitate around a tonic. Sometimes it lacks tonality. This musical example is what we could percive as the Atonal music definition. It is the term that defines music that does not have a tonal center or does not resolve to a tonic.

Composers and pianists often tend to think of the composer Arnold Schoenberg when mentioning atonality. However, what we describe today as the "atonal" definition of music came from much earlier.

Many composers were experimenting already with atonality like for example, Franz Liszt, who composed "Bagatelles Sans Tonalité" in 1885.

Just like in painting, the music went through a crisis phase around the times of World War I and developed a new system of expression that broke through the canons of beauty. The politics and social situation of instability and worry in Europe led all of the creative minds to crush the old system of an organized and clean canvas and created a visual and musical representation of Europe's state of destruction.

Atonality aims to express a feeling, an idea or even a political concept without stating prominent western classical elements. It is the idea of having an abstract thought that creates the artistic influence of "expressionism". In music, atonality works in the same manner. It is the concept of fighting against the canon of the beauty of what is heard and seen.

Ok, but what is atonality?

We define as "atonality" the technique of composing music that completely avoids any hint of tonality or a resolution to a tonic. It is related, of course, to the Atonal definition in music.

One of the masters in this topic is Arnold Schoenberg: a composer who musically stated that the tonal system was no more. The three fathers of this composition technique were Arnold Schonberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.


Arnold Schoenberg was not only a composer but also a music theorist, writer and painter. His works reflected a significant change that music went through. Schoenberg represented society's turbulent situation through his compositions. His approach to harmony shaped 20th Century musical thought.

In 1920, Schoenberg designed the "twelve-tone technique", which is a method of composition that manipulates a sequence series from all the twelve notes in the chromatic scale. This term is also known as "Dodecaphonism".

Arnold Schoenberg has been considered an iconic figure in Atonal music.

Let us compare two different pieces and see how they differ. Take a look at the examples below:

The example above is Mozart's Sonata in F Major.

The piece begins in an arpeggiated chord in F major. We can see that the harmony and the melody reflect the form through the arpeggios and firmly establishes a tonal center around the F note.

However, let's take a look at this other example below.

Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11

The concept of form has not changed from the structural point of view as he still uses tonal music devices of rhythmic and motivic variation but applied to this new atonal system. There is rhythm consistency and uses intervals as a guide through the piece. This freedom of expression is what makes the technique of atonality.


Also known as "Dodecaphonism", this composition method consists of using all the notes from the chromatic scale, formed in a group order or "series". The composition avoids being in a particular key.

There are many methods of using the 12-tone series. Because of its freedom of writing and expressive value, many composers from the 20th Century explored more ways in how to come up with the most expressive and unique music.


It can also use a pattern of harmonies or melodies that repeat themselves. What Jazz composers call nowadays "ostinato". All of this sounds intriguing; however, how do we create a dodecaphonic piece?

Well, take a look at the steps below:

1. Choose a series of notes:

To start a serial composition, you need to use a group or series of notes. You may choose any note you prefer, preferably from the chromatic scale, like the example shown below:

2. Rearrange the notes you chose in the order you prefer to create your own sequence, or “Note Row”. You may choose any note.

3. Alter your “Note Row. To add some variation, you may alter your chosen series. Take into account that to successfully compose within the serial technique there are three methods of altering your group of notes by:

  1. Inversion,

  2. Retrograde

  3. Combination of these both.


1. Inversion is a method of altering the note row that consists of changing the direction of the intervals used in your note row.

For example, you begin your series with G and then goes up an interval of a perfect 5th to D.

Then, you will revert these notes to go down instead and end up going down a perfect 4th: from G to low D, as shown in the example below:

2. Retrograde is another method of changing the series. This time, the melody will be played backwards.

3. Retrograde Inversion. This technique combines both the retrograde and the inversion method.

Sometimes, modern composers have used this technique in their works nowadays, such as the composer Ludovico Einaudi. He created a complete album of serial music, however, adapted to western film music, resulting in pieces with elements that repeat regularly. Here in this link, you can listen to his work:


One Step Further in Controlling Musical Parameters

An excellent example of serialism is the work of composer Olivier Messiaen, "Modes of values and intensities".

Another example is the composer Pierre Boulez. He was influenced by Webern and developed the atonal composition technique.

Most of the time, western popular music is composed of scales such as major or minor, and even it is based on modes. However, with serialism, the picture changes quite a lot.

This technique is based on the principle of controlling the four main parameters in music:

  • pitch (notes)

  • rhythm (durations)

  • Dynamics

  • Articulation.


Alban Berg

From Wkimedia Commons
Alban Berg

Alban Berg was another essential composer who represented very well atonality. However, as opposed to Schoenberg, Alban Berg did not entirely reject the concept of being in a key

His style is characterized by having a lot of expression and emotion within the atonal technique since he fused two music genres: the romantic lyricism and the twelve-tone system.

He was an expert in counterpoint, music theory and harmony, and even though he adopted the main principles and techniques of the twelve-tone system composition. He did not want to abandon his beloved style, the romanticism.

Berg studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and he developed harmony and counterpoint within the sonata movements.

Please take a listen to his work:

As we can hear, the sonata begins in a languid pace, expressing to the extremes each tone that is displayed. Through the use of classical elements such as dynamics and accents, Berg created something that feels more expressive and intense than Schoenberg's concept of composition.

The example above shows Berg’s Sonata Op. 1. As we can see, the staff structure still looks very familiar to western classical music.

However, let’s take a look at the example below.

This example is from Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto Op. 42. As we can see, the staff structure is presented more hectic and free of form.

"Wozzeck" is the first opera written in the Atonal system. Alban Berg composed this opera based on the German drama Woyzeck.

The piece contains very abrupt scenes, projecting the vision of doom from the Great War.

Listen to it:

Atonal music examples:

The piece is divided into three acts, and each scene contains a set of unique variations over a specific note or rhythm. For example, scene two is based on variations around B; scene 3 is based on rhythmic variations and scene four is a variation of a chord.

Alban Berg added new textures to the classical orchestral format. He added a marching band from which players from the pit would relocate to their corresponding section. All instructions are detailed written down in their score as footnotes.

Another innovative element is the "Sprechgesang", the expressionist vocal technique of combining singing and speaking. Both the instrumental and vocal patterns use free atonality to express emotions and the thought processes of the characters on the stage.

The expression of madness and alienation was amplified with atonal music.

Alban Berg designed the concept of combining metaphors and music.

The piece contains a combination of several tritones in variation form. Berg returns to these intervals to highlight every significant moment in the opera.

Berg also added short melodic phrases that are repeated continuously, also known as "Leitmotiv". Each leitmotiv is used very subtly to represent a character or an object on the scene.

The example above shows the most significant leitmotiv. It is heard in the first scene and later developed in the following acts.

Anton Webern

Anton Webern was an Austrian composer and director. His music was the most radical of his era.

He combined the Canon and Fugue with the twelve-tone system. Webern was inclined towards representing abstraction in his music. As opposed to Arnold Schoenberg and Alan Berg, Webern did not have a thematic motif in his works. His pieces were even more complex and avant-garde.

His compositions offered very detailed instructions for the players as well as extended performance techniques such as "Col Legno" "Sul tasto" or "Flutter".

The example above is taken from Webern's composition, "Two Pieces". As we can see, there are detailed instructions to the players in how to express to the limits the notes displayed.

The words in the second measure "Schwacher Werden" mean "fading away".


Atonality is present in many musical forms, from piano pieces to operas. It is a very flexible composition technique and highly used to express to an extreme level a mood, thought or feeling.

As it reflects such a clashing avant-garde sonority, it is mostly used by composers to express feelings of pain, struggle and crisis.

If you are interested in learning more about this technique, there is a full analysis of one of the most important pieces of dodecaphonic music, the Suite Op. 33a by Arnold Schoenberg. The analysis was done by Gisela Paterno, Composition and Theory teacher at WKMT:

Analysis of Klavierstücke Op. 33 a by A. Schoenberg – Part Iücke-op-33-a-by-a-schoenberg-part-i

Analysis of Klavierstücke Op. 33 a by A. Schoenberg – Part IIücke-op-33-a-by-a-schoenberg-part-ii

#atonalmusic #atonal

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