Atonal Harmony: The Complete Beginner's Guide

Atonal Harmony: The Complete Beginner's Guide Atonal Harmony: The Complete Beginner's Guide

Composing is often about expanding the limits. But, when the limits are out of the window entirely, what does composing become? In other words: can the works of composers ever stop being considered as... music?

Cause, the Oxford Dictionary defines opera as "a form of musical drama where purely melodic rhythmic forces intertwine with narrative elements" . This doesn't seem to apply to Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire", for example. OK; can we continue to call it a "melodrama" then? :)


Composing is a deeply personal and creative process for any artist. Each artist has their unique style, which reflects their individuality and artistic vision.

When initiating the creative process, the artist carefully considers how to blend various elements to create a cohesive whole. Through their composition style, the artist conveys their aesthetics and perspectives to the audience.

An artist's style of composition can evolve over time, reflecting their personal growth and changing influences. Or rather; it is the fusion of style and composition that brings forth works of art. And each work carries a piece of the artist's soul and a unique message for the world to interpret.

Good music composers have always had the unique ability to transform their thoughts and experiences into musical masterpieces. Today, modern composers continue to push the boundaries of musical expression.

Western music was, in a sense, defined by a tonal center. In atonality, composers liberate themselves from the constraints of working within a particular key and the expectations that come with it.

They may use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally, disregarding the hierarchies of traditional tonal harmony.

This lack of a defined key in atonality paved the way for unique and innovative compositions.

Classical Music

Classical western music has a defined tonality (or tonal centers , if/when modulations occur).

A strong tonal center can be found in virtually any classical composition. For example, in Beethoven's hyper-popular Symphony No. 9, the key of D minor serves the purpose of an "anchor".

This example illustrates how composers use the concept of a tonal center to create musical cohesion and a sense of resolution. That's not to say, that the chromatic scale isn't a fundamental element in classical music. In fact, it's quite the opposite!

In classical composition, the use of the chromatic scale introduces a rich and expressive palette of musical colors. It deepens the pool of options, allowing for intricate harmonies and charged passages in classical works.

The Functional Chords

As noted in our article on the diatonic scale , the notion of what constitutes a chord evolved through the ages. Tonal music defines it more strictly and structurally.

The concept of chord functionality is closely related to the chords' mutual relationships, as defined through progressions and harmonic cadences.

However, a single chord can also be functional and provide structure that underpins a melody. So, it all depends on the composer's skills and intentions.

Skilled authors can create a wide variety of moods through a single chord, assuming different musical contexts. Learning to express oneself through a chord is a crucial step towards musical artistry indeed!

Beyond Classicism

In the early twentieth century, the likes of Alexander Scriabin and Igor Stravinsky began to describe music with a departure from the traditional diatonic scale.

Their expressionist works embraced expressive chromaticism, using harmonies, scales and chords that all but abandoned conventional tonality.

When you hear their compositions, you can appreciate how masterful they were. Their charged chord progressions and melodies challenged the listener's expectations.

The Start

As things evolved further, innovative ideas challenged the last remaining constraints of functional harmony.

This departure from the traditional approach has caused successive chords to be dissonant and disconnected, as observed from the perspective of conventional chord structure.

Arnold Schoenberg introduced atonality and many other experimental techniques, pushing the boundaries even further. The "Schoenberg style" was so avant-garde at the time, that some did not even consider it as music, making his efforts an example of an archetypal paradigm shift.

His free atonality insisted that traditional harmonic concepts be entirely abandoned, without being strict regarding what exactly constitutes them. This raises the question: does an atonal composer focus on just breaking all the traditional rules?

Aesthetics of Atonality

Contrary to popular belief, atonality isn't about "anti-tonality". It's a set of independent principles. While harmonic cadences are "forbidden", atonal composers do not base their aesthetics on how non-tonal a piece of music is.

The absence of a traditional tonal center is indeed a defining feature of an atonal piece. And yes: in an atonal work, the composer deliberately avoids establishing a home key, leading to a dynamic manifestation of various chord structures.

These principles gave birth to what was later known as The Second Viennese School . Arnold Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire to demonstrate his aesthetic points earlier, and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern followed, starting to write piano pieces and even suites.

Their piano pieces in particular, showed that the musical focus was entirely different. The right hand wasn't "flying" while playing the melody or the major cadences' passing notes. Rather, pieces were more about pitch classes and structure, as they sent major keys into retirement.

Yeah, in atonal music, virtuosity (or rather: dexterity) becomes less important. Webern and Berg kept building on what their teacher provided, leading to further stylistic developments.

Apex Years

Serial music emerged as a significant departure from the free atonal music as such. It relies on a twelve-tone technique or tone row, which determines the melodic sequence and successive chords throughout a composition.

The corresponding compositional technique, then dubbed "Serialism", gained prominence through the works of the Second Viennese School. The composers' push led to the creation of groundbreaking atonal works.

The favorite pupils of Schoenberg (the aforementioned Alban Berg and Anton Webern) were at the forefront of the Serialism movement.

They started employing rigorous mathematical structures to organize their compositions. Their atonal works often utilized the aforementioned twelve-tone rows to achieve their goal.

This system required that all 12 tones from the chromatic scale be used, but not from a single octave and strictly without any resemblance to a tonal melody (as traditionally defined). To add to the challenge, the "row" needs to be developed without tone repetitions.

As a consequence, atonal music became very challenging for the performer too, especially atonal pieces featuring a vocal part. Due to absence of functional harmonic reference, less experienced vocalists often needed to make special exercises and even learn their part by heart.

The influence of Serialism left a lasting impact on the world of contemporary classical music. The atonal pieces paved the way for further experimentation in composition.

The Non-Viennese

It'd be a mistake to arrive at the conclusion that atonal music is related to Vienna - or only the west in general, for that matter.

Sergei Prokofiev explored these concepts independently, creating works that especially challenged the conventional opera structure. He continued building on the foundations established by Scriabin and Stravinsky.

His compositions, much like Alban Berg's Opera Wozzeck , saw the dissolution of the primary structural element, as melodies and rhythms gained more independence and complexity.

Ironically, free atonality can be considered both the start and the end, simply because atonality was less strict before and after the Serialists.

One might beg to differ, but certain aspects or excerpts of the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich or even Rachmaninov are in a way "freely atonal".


At least since Charlie Parker, and definitely after him, literally every jazz musician was obsessed with how to expand the tonal centers; how to "redefine keys" if you will. This gave birth to cool jazz and modal jazz in particular.

Somewhat later, Herbie Hancock explored the fusion of contemporary classical music and jazz genres - an inevitable consequence of his innovative spirit. He treated rhythm as an inseparable partner to melody, creating groundbreaking compositions.

These experiments with melodic rhythmic tensions became one of the major determinants of the development of new music in the 20th century.


Atonal music didn't bring an end to tonal music or to functional harmony. Rather, it redefined the concepts, the chords and what defines a tonal center, what constitutes a chord etc.

Tonal Music Today

Contemporary functional harmony sounds...well... enriched (to say the least). Aesthetics allow for both the pitch classes of atonal music and a tonal center.

The tonal music of today can - and does - feature atonal music also. Or perhaps "resemblances" of atonal music, or maybe glimpses and influences of atonal music. And it's only natural, cause music is music, and the key is in the composers' ideas.

Atonal Music of Today?

By the same token: atonal music is atonal music. And c ontemporary atonal music does exist , though you won't find it named as such (as "contemporary atonal music" ).

Arnold Schoenberg and any school prior are vastly different to the schools of today. "Pierrot Lunaire" isn't comparable to today's atonal music. But then again: it wasn't comparable to Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" either, and that came only a decade after Schoenberg's death...

What matters is that the atonal music of Schoenberg brought new ideas to the music world. Key ideas, especially useful in the music for film or the theatrical sphere. And yes: today everyone agrees that the works of Schoenberg were - and always will be - music!

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