One of the main strengths of studying tonal and/or modal (pre-tonal) counterpoint is understanding dissonance treatment within those idioms. Additionally, one learns how to navigate some of the trickier "puzzles" of composition, like creating canons that will sound harmonious and follow specific expectations of consonance and dissonance.

With that said, I have heard of books and courses dedicated to atonal counterpoint (atonal presumably meaning both serial and non-serial atonality). What would these actually teach?

Part of atonality is the "emancipation of the dissonance," in which case I don't see how atonal counterpoint would teach "dissonance treatment" at all if they have been emancipated. Similarly, something like canonic writing seems a bit trivial if the resulting composition doesn't need to follow specific expectations of consonance and dissonance.

So what does atonal counterpoint actually teach?

  • Wouldn't it be possible to still assign a number saying how dissonant something is?
    – Emil
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 4:56
  • @Emil I guess so, but would this apply to serial counterpoint?
    – Richard
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 11:29
  • I don't know counterpoint very well but to me it looks like some kind of transition rules 'go from this amount of dissonance to this amount of dissonance for this effect' which would still be possible.
    – Emil
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 13:08
  • This hasn't gotten any attention in 20 hrs. I would hope there are people with better qualifications to answer than what I can remember of my 20th-cent-theory course and its final paper on a Webern trio, though I can venture that. But it seems a bit broad, i.e. "define an entire branch of theory." To avoid confusion/patronization: Are we basically talking about serialism here? How much do you already know about the rules/approaches of 12-tone serialism? Commented May 31, 2023 at 17:50
  • @AndyBonner I'm well-versed in serialism and in atonality of various stripes. My question is ultimately this: tonal and modal counterpoint emphasizes intervals and consonances, and it can be tricky to write things that follow expected "rules." But in atonal music, who cares if things are dissonant, so what are the "rules" that we follow? It seems to me there can't be any rules, in which case: what is actually being taught?
    – Richard
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 18:48

1 Answer 1


Have you perused Simple Composition by Charles Wuorinen? While it deals with serialist music, its lessons particularly on structure appertain to tonal music.

Dissonant counterpoint was a legitimate idea, used and taught by some American composers in the early to mid 20th century. In short, Dissonant Counterpoint is counterpoint with the intervallic goals reversed. But you are correct that nobody teaches it today.

The study of atonal music ought not to replace the study of tonal music. Study of atonal music ought to be embarked upon, after study of tonal music. The study of species and tonal counterpoint would be a prerequisite to atonal music, because they all use the same principles of line independence and voice leading.

Serialist music intertwines the notions of harmony and counterpoint, and ought not be studied separately. The vertical and the horizontal are opposite sides of the same coin. Postwar serial music, like Milton Babbitt's, is intended to meld all musical parameters (melody, harmony, rhythm, register, duration, structure, and even dynamics). That kind of rigidity has fallen out of fashion, but they are still interesting notions to contemplate.

Serialist music is wringing as much mileage as possible, out of however teeny germ of an idea. This principle can make tonal music more cohesive. Even if you dislike atonal music for aesthetic reasons, atonal music can still teach lessons well worth learning.

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