We love and listen to the Second Viennese School like Berg, Schoenberg, Webern — even before my daughter was born! My daughter's studying music at university. To guard privacy, I don't want to write more details on her or our family.

But starting 2019, she's been practicing many pieces composed by Pierre Boulez — and this Ultraserialism is maddening my husband and me! It sounds like random notes and/or noise to us! We haven't confronted her, because she knows more about music, and we know Boulez is a world famous composer and conductor. Boulez conducted "Classical" and Romantic tonal music like Beethoven, Berlioz, Haydn, Mahler — so this emperor is wearing clothes??!?? Boulez doesn't look like a sham or phony, and we're taking Boulez's music in good faith.

But how can we learn Ultraserialism? Since 2019, we've watched Boulez's music on YouTube and listened to recordings. But like many others, we still can't "GET" Ultraserialism. When asked in 1999, why so few major pieces of the 1950s and 1960s had become repertory, Boulez replied

"Well, perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener" (as cited in Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, 2007, p. 571).

The Music SE question My child's violin practice is making us tired, what can we do? is similar. But the issue here is not my daughter's practice, but THE ULTRASERIALIST COMPOSERS she's practicing.

Observation on June 20 2021.

I don't know if the responders below will see this, but I found — perhaps too late — another quotation by Boulez rebuffing his own Ultra Serialism on Wikipedia. theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Pierre Boulez | The Arts Desk

Would you rather not have this piece [Referring to Boulez's Piano Sonata no. 2] played any more.

I am not terribly eager to listen to it. But for me it was an experience that was absolutely necessary.

  • It's a Marmite situation. Love it, hate it, that most often cannot change! My problem with it is not being able to tell if mistakes have been made... No answer, just a comment.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 8:22
  • "so this emperor is wearing clothes??!??" I might not have fully understoodd the meaning of that question, I think. At least, I don't seem to be able to make a connection between that, the previous sentence and the main question.
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 9:13
  • 3
    @Clockwork - it's the story about the Emperor's new clothes. As in 'I don't understand something, so it must be good' in a nutshell.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 9:25
  • 1
    why cant she practice at her conserve, even if she lives in the city where she studies music, the conserve should have ample practice facilities for her to practice in. You can make a case that she needs to fully immerse herself in music to get the most out of music school and you cannot fully do it when you are still living at home
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 17:55
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    @NeilMeyer She can, but that's not the principal issue in this post. Issue is how husband and I can appreciate Boulez and Ultra Serialism!
    – user26407
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 5:47

4 Answers 4


If you enjoy the Second Viennese School, but can't get into Boulez, I suggest you turn to the missing link in this timeline: Olivier Messiaen. He was the person who taught people like Boulez about the Second Viennese School, and his own experiments with Serialism (where the note pitches are serialized, as in Schoenberg's twelve-tone music) and Total Serialism (where all aspects of the music are serialized) had a strong influence on his pupils.

The interesting thing about Messiaen's music is that it developed through many stages, moving toward and away from (Total) Serialism at different times, and also incorporated many other techniques and influences. E.g. his use of transcribed bird song can be seen as a counterweight to the search for formalized composition techniques such as serialism, which was typical of much 20th century classical music; one is the sound of nature untouched by man, the other very much man-made and intellectual. (I suspect Messiaen turned to bird song whenever he had doubts about the validity of other composition techniques.)

The most Total Serialist of his composition is undoubtedly Mode de Valeurs et d'Intensités from the Quatre Etudes de Rythme for piano from 1949/50. This probably comes closest to what Boulez did in the 50's and 60's. But Messiaen moved away from this composition style after a few years, and serialism became only one of several techniques that he combined in his later works.

I would suggest exploring Messiaen's music chronologically, and also listening to Boulez's music of the same time when you reach the 50's. Maybe this will give you a way in, or at least a context in which to approach Boulez.

With a bit of luck, you may even get your daughter interested in exploring Messiaen and/or some of his other pupils besides Boulez.

Thème et Variations (1932) played by Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan
Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus (1941) played by Gil Shaham and Myung-Whun Chung

  • 2
    Thanks. Husband and I were flabbergasted by your answer, LOL! We actually listen to Messiaen and have no issue with most of his pieces like Turangalîla-Symphonie, Oiseaux exotiques, Des Canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l'au-delà. We never guessed Messiaen was "the missing link" to appreciating Ultra Serialism!!!
    – user26407
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 5:36

Well, the way you phrase this, it is a "music appreciation" question for which there is different StackExchange group.

But the real question I see here is more one of rehearsal hygiene. A professional music career requires an exercise regimen that is not expected to be attractive to witnesses, including your daughter's teachers who just get an occasional sample of the progress. And of course where you are practising individual parts of pieces arranged for multiple performers, it very much depends on the kind of music whether the part gives a good foreshadowing of the larger whole it is part of.

So the question is whether you can find an arrangement where a good part of the time your daughter is practising, you just don't get to hear her.

There may be still a third aspect, namely whether the skills and experience your daughter acquires are sought after enough that her education will enable her to a career she considers fulfilling and that is able to meet her financial needs. Of course, this is a general problem of becoming a professional musician. In her case, it would definitely also involve whether she can bring something into this kind of music that gives the listener a better appreciation than what he gets his ears on otherwise.

There is some music where metering your progress in the lens of audience appreciation may start making sense (or at least being forward-pointing) earlier. But that's to a good degree your tough luck: in the end, it is mostly between your daughter as an adult and her teachers to make that determination, and if that niche is where your daughter wants to thrive, trying to be supportive of her choices is what you likely should do, and your question indicates that it is also what you want to do.

The best way to do that may not involve you gauging her playing but let her navigate that minefield on her own and with her teachers. At least as you are reasonably sure that her heart is in on this for her own good reasons rather than because she is trying to prove something to you.

  • 4
    Good answer. Even the practice of well loved music can be unbearable to listen to, for example if the practicer is repeating a short passage a hundred times in rapid succession.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 12:47

From my recent experience working from home, frequently in the same room as my wife, and inspired by the suggestion in the other answer to "find an arrangement where a good part of the time your daughter is practising, you just don't get to hear her," I suggest investing in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones and listening to something else while she is practicing.

  • Some noise-cancelling headphones are more effective than others. Better pick the right one for our need, rather than listening to something very loud to drown out the sound (which would damage our ears).
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 17:19
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    Actually, noise-cancelling cans won't be that good for this sort of music - pitch leaps and sudden dynamic volume changes. Better would be in-ears with ear defenders on top. Or practise in the bathroom. (She might enjoy the enhanced sound anyway!).
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 17:24
  • @Tim my experience suggests otherwise. The noise cancellation doesn't cancel non-noise sounds completely, but it muffles the outside world enough that I can ignore it when I'm listening to something else through the headphones.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 18:54
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    O.k., so combine the two: n.c.cans and ear defenders - find someting which feels comfortable, and it's sorted.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 19:15

The existing answers ("Maybe don't listen?") make a good point, especially that practice is not performance. (I'm tempted to name-check https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Cares_if_You_Listen .)

But to address the intent of your question, "How can anybody actually like this?" I can't claim that I sit down and listen to serialist music for enjoyment. But the closest I came was for a few weeks of my "20th century music theory" course in undergrad in which we had to actually learn the techniques, and submit a paper analyzing a Webern piece. I spent weeks staring at the score, circling things, and I discovered that what sounded abstract and arbitrary was in fact incredibly, meticulously, deliberate. I found patterns, inverted patterns, reversed patterns, chords that added up simultaneously to the pattern, patterns in the rhythms and even the meter, patterns handed off from one voice to another (or chased in canon). Even dynamics and articulations were mathematically calculated. To this day, when I go back and read the paper I wrote, I don't understand half of it. But in that moment, while I certainly didn't enjoy the piece, I understood it. To attempt to just sit down, let it wash over you, and appreciate the experience is perhaps comparable to listening to a recitation of a Shakespeare sonnet translated into Russian, without either analyzing the poem or understanding Russian.

It's a great irony that a genre born of a compulsion to totally control every aspect, and to pursue ultimate and absolute order, comes across sounding unordered and arbitrary. Of course, the practitioners of serialism believed that our facility to hear and appreciate the mathematical precision would evolve over time. It's telling that most, like Boulez, gave up on that dream and in fact turned to the opposite, indeterminism. Rather than giving the composer ultimate control, they set boundaries between the composer and the compositional process, like deriving content from the I Ching or putting tracing paper over star charts.

TLDR? Who says you have to enjoy everything? Even if your daughter does? But you can at least have a chance at understanding it, and for serialism that's the best kind of appreciation.

  • 1
    I wouldn't say that most of the people doing this kind of total serialism then went into indeterminism. Indeterminism was an approach that existed at the same time as represented by the "New York School" of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. The Europeans (Darmstadt School) did eventually embrace the use of chance ("alea") but it differed from the Americans in that it was strictly controlled chance (more like Mozart's dice music). Having said that, Stockhausen might be the exception as he was always embracing new ideas.
    – bfootdav
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 20:07

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