I'm really confused about 'Serial composers'. While studying Igor Stravinsky, in his later life, he was regarded as a 'Serial composer'. I would love to know if composers despised this categorisation but we are digressing.

From his Wiki page, from 1945-1968.

This began Stravinsky's third and final distinct musical period, the serial (or twelve-tone) period, which lasted until his death.

Not just Igor, there are lots of them.

Serial composers

Source: Google search

When we say 'twelve-tone' we mean the Chromatic scale don't we?

Chromatic scale

The twelve Major and Minor's aside - this is a new scale, a scale which uses all the notes.

However, when Stravinsky was setting about his work or any composer of that matter it's up to you what notes you use, you could use all twelve notes in any scale but this doesn't class you as a Serial Composer does it? I could have a piece in G Major and still use whatever I wanted to with the use of accidentals and naturals?

In a way, we are always writing music using Serialism then? I must admit I'm not very good with scales yet, I don't know them off the top of my head :(

All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key.

What is it about this movement, of which people believe Schoenberg's use was of it was most important, made it such a worthwhile landmark in the evolution of classical music?

  • 1
    This question is very probably too specialized for MusicFans.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 16:33

1 Answer 1


The key word here is serialism.

Serialism means that the compositional process is determined by a series, or list, of pitches and various transformations that occur to this series.

A twelve-tone serialist will create a listing of all twelve pitches, using each once and only once. They can use this series (also known as a row), but they can also:

  • Transpose it to begin at different pitch levels.
  • Retrograde it and play it backwards.
  • Invert it and play it upside down.
  • Or some combination of all of these, like a transposed retrograde inversion (!).

Thus there are several points in the compositional process where the composer does not choose the next pitch; rather, that next pitch is chosen for them based on the serial transformations they chose earlier.

Earlier composers did use all twelve pitches, but they used them in a tonal context. Here, Stravinsky is using all twelve pitches with the serial process, which is the main difference.

As for why this is important in music history, it's one of the key developments (forgive the unintentional pun) in composing music without a tonic pitch. As composers like Wagner and Mahler continually pushed the boundaries of tonal music, Schoenberg felt that the only logical next step was to abandon tonality completely. One way of doing this was to use the serial process.

And one final historical tidbit: Stravinsky hated serialism for decades. But once Schoenberg died, Stravinsky suddenly loved serialism. It seems that his "hatred" for serialism was really a hatred for Schoenberg, and once the latter died, the former felt comfortable using serialism publicly!

  • As always, Richard - thanks very much. I did read that Stravinsky and Schoenberg had respect for each other but did not particularly like each other. Schoenberg was known for making fun of Stravinsky and his love of the C Major scale.
    – cmp
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 16:04
  • Another great line from Schoenberg “My music is not modern, it is merely badly played”.
    – cmp
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 16:28

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