Atonal music is music that doesn’t have a main note or “tonal center”. It’s often used to describe music from the early 20th century onwards that doesn’t follow the traditional system of using a single, central triad. Atonality is characterized by notes from the chromatic scale that are independent of one another, rather than arranged in a hierarchy of harmonies. This means that the notes used in atonal music can be in new combinations that sound different from traditional music.
The term “atonality” is sometimes used to describe music that is not tonal but also not serial, particularly the music of the Second Viennese School. However, it is generally used to describe music in the Western classical tradition that is not tonal. Late 19th- and early 20th-century composers like Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky have written music that has been called atonal.
An example of atonal music would be Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” which is a song cycle composed in 1912. The work uses a technique called “Sprechstimme” or spoken singing, and the music is atonal, meaning that there is no clear tonal center or key. Instead, the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of each other, and the harmonies do not follow the traditional tonal hierarchy found in classical music. The result is a dissonant and jarring sound that is quite different from the harmonies found in tonal music.
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