Can anyone tell me the best justifications for writing atonally by the composers who did so? Did anyone, including Schoenberg, explain what "freeing the dissonance" means? Does it imply that he believed that dissonance (and hence consonance) is a social construct?

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    There was a certain time in history when some very bold composers decided to break out and do something completely different and unheard-of, because they were tired of writing conventional music and did not want to sound like anybody else. It was a bold experiment with only limited success, but it succeeded in pushing the boundaries of what we call music, and left later composers much more free to explore new ideas.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 18:39
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    Eventually, I guess you just get bored of 1, 6min, 4, 5… ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 18:44
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    @WheatWilliams I would argue that much of the music we enjoy at the movies today in major block busters were strongly influenced by this movement. It depends on how you define success.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 18:51
  • I'd even say that the Viennese are as popular now as they've ever been - they get programmed a lot now, and with some success as, on the whole, they are better played now. (Schoenberg used to claim, with some justification, that his music wasn't modern, just badly played.)
    – user16935
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 22:47
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    @WheatWilliams You're comments are actually a little misguided. It isn't that they just "did not want to sound like anybody else", it was that they considered pantonality (Schoenberg's preferred term) to be the next most logical step after Wagner and Mahler. Schoenberg looked at theory textbooks and thought that it was crass how obnoxious the labels were getting; he actually considered thinly-functional harmony vulgar and disingenuous to more straightforward harmonies. I also disagree that success was limited; it gave way to Set Theory, which dominated music for much of the 20th century. Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 5:34

6 Answers 6


A difficult one to answer. Let's say that it was an idea for which the time was right; Schoenberg merely articulated it. Look at most early- to middle period Bartók, and you'll see the same thing happening, ditto early (pre-Neoclassical) Stravinsky, ditto early Hindemith (around Sancta Susanna), definitely ditto Scriabin and Roslavets.

Did anyone, including Schoenberg, explain what "freeing the dissonance" means?

Schoenberg did make the attempt a number of times. I'd suggest reading his book of essays, Style and Idea. It's a surprisingly good read - he was a clear writer. I think it boils down to the fact that previously dissonant combinations that resulted from part-writing come to stand by themselves after time (V7 being a good example). By Schoenberg's time, tonality was already evincing a high level of unresolved or barely resolved dissonance, so cutting the harmonies free from the need for resolution seemed a logical next step.

Schoenberg claimed he was following an inner necessity, and I'm not sure I'd argue. However, this was a man who could handle Post-Wagnerian Romanticism probably better than any of his peers (the Gurrelieder is purely impressive), and, as such, was probably better placed than most to appreciate the strains that kind of music was placing on common practice tonality. Dissonant harmonies were, as I alluded, already starting to become freestanding. Schoenberg (and others of his generation) merely cut the ties that bound these to "tonal" endings, ties that they felt had become threadbare at best.

Does it imply that he believed that dissonance (and hence consonance) is a social construct?

In some ways, yes, at least as absolute values (relative degrees of dissonance being a different situation and more easily provable). They always were: for quite a while, thirds were dissonances. Even now, thirds are far from pure (in the Pythagorean sense), but we consider them by convention to be consonant. By convention, jazz harmony rarely works with bare triads, so dissonance is still at least somewhat "emancipated" to this day. Common practice tonality is a kludge that just "kinda grew". By the time it got to people like Schoenberg, the cracks were showing.

Can anyone tell me the best justifications for writing atonally by the composers who did so?

Music like this: Vergangenes. It may or may not be to your taste, but it works. It would be very hard to express the same thing by more conventional means.

(Note to @amalgamate: Schoenberg was already a mature composer in his 50s when he came up with the 12-tone method. Works written with the method amount to less than half of his output. If he managed to "connect to traditional harmony" at times with it, it may be because he saw the method as 'working with the tones of the motif," which leaves a lot of room for other things to happen as well.)

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    Technically he was 47, and had been developing it with his acolytes for some time. That said, I think it's funny when people always think of him as the big, bad, ugly music-maker when most of what he wrote was tonal. He wrote a suite for Band. Band. Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 5:39
  • The first pieces of op.25 were written about then, yeah. (The last piece of Op.23 was actually written a bit later.) Those first works were initially published around 1924/5 - I don't recall much if anything about the method in the Festschrift, although it has been about a decade since I last read it. But yeah, Variations for Band, Suite for String Orchestra, Concertos after Monn and Handel, Variations on a Recitative, completion of the 2nd Chamber Symphony, etc...
    – user16935
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 6:18
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    Fantastic answer, +1. Just a tiny correction: Pythagorean 3rds are actually not particularly pure at all, I think the ratio is 81:64. Ptolemaic thirds are pure, 5:4, and are the just major thirds. But again, excellent response to a difficult question. Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 17:28
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    Cripes, that's right, isn't it? Pythagoras based everything on fifths. <sigh> Tuning has always been a morass... It often seems like every philosopher and his brother was coming up with one, but your point here reinforces the fact that music is a cultural artifact that is loosely tied to acoustics.
    – user16935
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:05

The simplest way to put atonality is trying to get away from the traditional ideas of harmony (ie the ides of a tonic). Composers have always wanted to push the limit of what they write and this is no exception. There is much more to music then just harmony and it had been the central focus of western music including the idea of consonance and dissonance.

There is rhythm, dynamics, articulation, form, and so much more to music that composers used to drive the pieces here's a quite famous example from Schoenberg:


In the simplest terms, he was saying that historically listeners become jaded to new harsh sounds, and that they then become less harsh or dissonant for the listeners in fact the entire culture over time. We do certain things in modern music without a thought towards dissonance that earlier styles would consider to be harsh.

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    My musical history is terrible, but wasn't the Maj 7th once considered 'bad' ? These days, it's a rather sweet chord.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 18:46

I can offer a couple ideas for your first question.

Can anyone tell me the best justifications for writing atonally by the composers who did so?

Something worth mentioning is the influence of the Roman Catholic church. I believe these ideas were consistent among many other Western Christian denominations as well. Many sought to challenge the Church and it's many rules on the modern Western World.

Being atonal, was considered unholy while consonance was holy. For example, many hymns involve playing the root and perfect fourth (sus4) and resolving finally to the major third. Resolution to the major third was considered holiest of closures to a musical idea (and additionally, where most hymns end and sing, "Amen").

Playing the sharp fourth on the other hand, was very frowned upon as it sounded unnatural and made one's head spin (back then considered conjuring devils). It offers no resolution and forces the listen to experience something new and out of the norm.

As the Church's role in the world diminished, so too did these "rules" to music. People who challenged the Church's ideas, Martin Luther, Galileo, etc, definitely helped shake it's dominance on the Western World. With the introduction of jazz and blues, ideas of what was bulldozed. Wanna play a sharp four, go ahead. Music is music is music.

In sum, many musicians played atonally to break free from the shackles society had on music. Like other art forms, music challenges the human thought process and forces uses to confront new ideas.


I could hardly do better than let Schoenberg's own words be the answer. This is from his essay, "Composition with Twelve Tones":

In the last hundred years, the concept of harmony has changed tremendously through the development of chromaticism. The idea that one basic tone, the root, dominated the construction of chords and regulated their succession – the concept of tonality – had to develop first into the concept of extended tonality. Very soon it became doubtful whether such a root still remained the center to which every harmony and harmonic succession must be referred. Furthermore, it became doubtful whether a tonic appearing at the beginning, at the end, or at any other point really had a constructive meaning...

The ear had gradually become acquainted with a great number of dissonances, and so had lost the fear of their 'sense-interrupting' effect. One no longer expected preparations of Wagner's dissonances or resolutions of Strauss' discords; one was not disturbed by Debussy's non-functional harmonies, or by the harsh counterpoint of later composers. This state of affairs led to a freer use of dissonances comparable to the classic composers' treatment of the dimished seventh chords, which could precede and follow any other harmony, consonant or dissonant, as if there were no dissonance at all.

What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or a lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility... Closer acquaintance with the more remote consonances – the dissonances, that is – gradually eliminated the difficulty of comprehension and finally admitted not only the emancipation of dominant and other seventh chords, dimished sevenths and augmented triads, but also the emancipation of Wagner's, Strauss's, Moussorgky's, Debussy's, Mahler's, Puccini's, and Reger's more remote dissonances.

The term emancipation of the dissonance refers to its comprehensibility... A style based on this premise treats dissonaces like consonances and renounces a tonal center. By avoiding the establishment of a key, modulation is excluded, since modulation means leaving an established tonality and establishing another tonality.

In other words, the emancipation here is from the old rules of functional harmony. The musicologist Theodor Adorno would later interpret this in socialist terms, as emancipation from a socio-musical system that he considered decadent and corrupt, but that was evidently not what Schoenberg originally intended.

(Finally, I should note that the age of writing atonal music has certainly not passed! Salonen's compositions are some of my favorite recent examples, particularly Helix and LA Variations.)

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    I don't consider it an insult at all – maybe you ought to take that up with a music critic – but you're right about underrepresentation. What should his title be, then, if you were to give him one? Or should I just do without one?
    – Owen S.
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:15
  • (I decided on the bland and unassuming term "musicologist" instead. I hope that's OK with the musicologists in the crowd. ;-) )
    – Owen S.
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 3:05

Why not?

Atonal is a term nowadays meaningless, for real. Atonal music isn’t really atonal, just relies in different functions and constructs, some sui generis.

  • How is it meaningless? Does it not mean "music without a single tonic"?
    – Richard
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 23:11
  • This was when the term fist appeared - with bad connotations. But later it was discovered that most “atonal” music has a tonic note, axis or interval and a formal system of tonal hierarchies de facto, even examples in serialism. These hierarchies are different from tonal music from Common Practice Period, but still are formally defined. It’s a whole new spectrum of harmonic functions and combinations. That’s why the term Post Tonal was coined. Commented May 25, 2020 at 23:38

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