Atonal Music

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Atonal Music


a concept pertaining to music that does not have a tonal organization of sounds.

Atonal music arose at the beginning of the 1900’s and was connected with the work of a new Viennese school (A. Schönberg, A. Berg, and A. Webern). The basic characteristic of atonal music is the absence of a unifying correlation between tones and the main center of a key, the tonic; this results in amorphousness of musical discourse, disintegration of the structural functions of harmony, dissonance, and so forth. The lack of tonal and harmonic centers makes it extremely difficult to understand the music, although various major composers have at times created impressive atonal works. Particularly sharp, expressive timbre and rhythm, intense theatrical situations, and poetic texts are used in the monodrama Erwartung (1909) and the suite Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schönberg, the opera Wozzeck by Berg (1921), and other works.

In 1922, Schönberg devised a method of composition “with twelve tones which are related only to one another” (this was later called dodecaphony); its purpose was to introduce strict order into the anarchy of atonal music. Atonal music is the basis of many systems of composition that have entered the arsenal of avant-gardism. The aesthetic principles of atonal music are closely related to expressionism. The method, devices, and elements of atonal music are found among composers of different schools (C. Ivés, B. Britten, B. Bartók, A. Honegger, and others).


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Shneerson, G. O muzyke zhivoi i mertvoi. Moscow, 1964.
Mazel’, L. “O putiakh razvitiia iazyka sovremennoi muzyki.” Sovetskaia muzyka, 1965, nos. 6, 7, 8.
Berg, A. “What Is Atonality?” In N. Slonimsky, Music Since 1900. New York, 1949.
Schönberg, A. Style and Idea. New York, 1958.
Rognoni, L. Espressionismo e dodecafonia. Turin, 1954. (Bibliography, pp. 355–95.)
Reti, R. Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality. London, 1958.
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Austin, W. Music in the 20th Century. New York, 1966. (Bibliography, pp. 552–662.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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