On Atonal Music

“They always stick in one of those atonal things before the Beethoven,” said Mrs. Bowman, who had just been to a symphony concert. “I never did like that sort of thing, but I guess I’m just not very musical.”

“No one who loves music really loves twelve-tone music,” Mr. Magundi said. “There may be certain compositions that strike you as clever, and you may enjoy some of the interesting sounds emanating from the different sections of the orchestra; but you will never love it. This is not a defect of your musical education, but a compliment to your ear: it simply shows that you have the ability to distinguish what is music from what is not. The modern twelve-tone system is designed expressly to prevent music from happening—that is, what any sane listener would define as music. Nor will I listen to that hoary and false assertion that the great composers of the past were similarly derided in their time. They were not. Beethoven’s seventh symphony, at its first concert, could not be continued until the audience had forced the orchestra to repeat the second movement. Wagner was the center of an almost religious cult. Ravel saw popular dance bands playing his “Bolero” when the ink was hardly dry on the score. These were composers who appalled the conventional critics with their innovations; but their innovations were music, and ordinary people heard it and loved it, and loved it while it was still fresh. We have had a century to get used to atonal music, and all the great orchestras have been force-feeding it to us as the price we have to pay to hear Mozart or Mahler. Yet, during that long period, and with such a relentless campaign, not one composition in that style has made the slightest impression on the public at large. We must confess, therefore, that something more than fashion is at work here; and we may boldly state it as a law of nature that no sane and healthy person will ever really love atonal music.”

5 thoughts on “On Atonal Music

  1. I began to agree with Mr. Magundi as he worked himself into his argument on this one. I disagree with his initial statement, “No one who loves music really loves twelve-tone music,” but I agree with his last statement, that “no sane and healthy person will ever really love atonal music.”

    Being a musicologist myself, I have had a number of occasions to meet people who genuinely love twelve-tone music. Not only have they devoted their lives to its study, but they listen to it on their car stereos and while they are eating supper. They’re not just “being clever”, they really like it, and their response to other types of music tells me they are not totally without taste or musical sensitivity.

    On the other hand, I would not call them totally sane or healthy. I’m not sure many musicologists in any specialty would qualify for that, and probably no composers at all.

  2. It was Stravinsky who first convinced me that it is possible to write genuine music according to the 12-note method. Agon, which is I believe the first of his works to include some 12-note sections, also includes sections based on ecclesiastical chant and with abstruse references to mediaeval dance music. (But none of that matters.) It is to my mind a “desert island” piece, the finest thing he ever wrote.

    I would agree that the 12-note system was never going to be anything other than a backwater in musical history. Those masterpieces that have been created using the system succeed, I think, despite rather than because of it.

    Fundamentally, though, the problem about “loving” 12-note music is that someone musical can no more love a compositional style than a form of orchestration. If someone seriously said “I love Baroque counterpoint” or “I love early Classical symphonies” then I would trust their taste as little as someone who said “I hate vocal music” or “I hate choral music”.

  3. Mr. Magundi says: Scott Bradley, who wrote the scores for the MGM cartoons from the 1930s through the 1950s, made use of long atonal passages in his scores. In fact, by the 1950s, often most of the score was atonal. But he used atonality for a distinct musical purpose: it expressed a world gone horribly wrong, which of course is what usually happened to world of Tom as soon as he began his latest pursuit of Jerry. The atonality always arose from a world of tonality, and led back into a world of tonality; it was the solid basis in tonality that gave the atonality its expressive effect.

    If you have never paid attention to Scott Bradley’s scores before, listen to the score from this cartoon, chosen almost at random (it was on the first page of a YouTube search):

    Notice how we hear conventional popular music whenever things are going right for Tom, and wildly atonal music whenever he loses control of the world. It would actually be harder to come up with a better demonstration of the meaning of tonality and atonality than this.

  4. As a composer and musician myself, I have to say that, here, Mr. Magundi shows off his ignorance: music is subjective. To say that some music is ‘not music’ because you find it ugly, is to say that you are some sort of arbiter of taste. Which you are not.

    As someone who genuinely loves the work of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and others, I suppose my mere existence renders his argument null and void. And it is not because I think myself clever either- the serialists and Second Viennese School were the greatest composers of polyphonic music, in my opinion, since the Baroque era, and they utilized entirely interesting structures and wonderful extended techniques in addition. Atonality does not bother me in the slightest- your tonal preferences are culturally given, and not empirical.

    Firstly: Music is organized sound arranged with an artistic mental process. This need not follow the “rules” that we have socially defined through repetition. In the same way that Picasso created art while a car manufacturer does not, as long as the composer created the work through a musical process, it is art regardless of what Mr. Magundi says.
    Secondly: Only the ignorant present their opinions on taste as fact. “De gustibus non est disputandum.” In matters of taste there is no dispute.

    From Mr. Magundi’s taste, it seems he very much values ‘the canon’ of classical music: Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s Seventh. However, these works’ popularity has nothing to do with greatness (which is opinion) and everything to do with accessibility. Bolero is, to my ears, an awful composition, worth far less to me that any of the serialists’ works, and I find Beethoven’s greatest, most beautiful work to be his grosse fugue. And yet, you will not find me insinuating that anything I like is fundamentally of more worth than what you like.

  5. I love your article on atonal music although you broached the subject I have been trying to find out just how prevalent atonal music is and exactly what the market is for it. I see concerts here and there where the stuff is being played but if I walk into a restaurant and hear a musician I’ll guarantee you they won’t be playing that junk as a classical guitarist I see artist who carry large crowds but are there any huge followings for this structured chaos? Could you make a living doing that ?
    Even if you can, when compared to musicians playing strictly tonal music which style do you stand a better chance with, as far as making money or reaching a larger audience is concerned, and the popularity of artist playing atonal music as opposed to the artist playing tonal; I think to myself where was Segovia during the third movement of Hiroshima as it was being played on the violin or guitar? What was his take on that equation or composition?

    I know he had to hear some of it. where do you draw the line on half a dozen cans of different colored paint, a three year old kid, and a canvas, Do you end up with a master piece? it’s right up there with a cat walking across a keyboard creating an atonal impromptu, why he could turn out to be a real feline serial killer.

    I would hate to have someone in the audience tell me my guitar sounds good but my composition is out of tune. I could just see Victor Borge playing a few abstract notes then pulling out a poulan and cranking it up for the finale?

    With no formal knowledge of the modern music field although I have purchased a few pig in a pokes because I am self taught and atonal distraught the majority of my repertoire has had to be purchased only after hearing someone else play it on YouTube or seeing a sample of it on their website. I’ve had to assume the role of the nausiated talent scout sick of the auditions ……. next!

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