I was wondering if there was a word to describe a (lack of) tonality of a piece of music - or section of a piece of music - to the extent that it is without any identifiable notes? A couple of examples would be They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! and The Whisper Song (warning - a bit rude, if you don't know it!).

4′33″ would also fit the bill, I suppose...

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    At least one of the songs you used as and example has notes that are sung. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 21 '15 at 23:44
  • Hmm - what bit of which song? – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 21 '15 at 23:52
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    Well They're coming to take me away has a melody that you can sing. The notes are different. The Whisper song is closer to being monotone as it's hard to make a musical sound by whispering. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 22 '15 at 0:09
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    I don't personally hear They're coming to take me away as a melody, just exaggerated spoken intonation - I wonder if we're listening to the same version? – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '15 at 0:22
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    In general, I wouldn't lump all the songs you've listed together. Yes the music doesn't have the feel of a central pitch (tonic) or any pitches at all in some, but what drives each piece is different. – Dom Feb 22 '15 at 10:29

Unpitched. It means sounds that have indefinite pitch. Sprechstimmung like They're coming to take me away or the Geographical Fugue qualifies. Pieces using unpitched percussion certainly qualify. 4'33" is maybe more conceptual, but it probably qualifies if there isn't any music playing in the background... :D


Noteless or perhaps toneless.

Music by definition does not require notes, only vocal or instrumental sounds.

I believe most of the serious composers I've known would call noteless music experimental or avant garde.

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    I like 'toneless', and I also like the idea of the Ying Yang Twins being avant garde! – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '15 at 21:21

Maybe "indeterminate pitch"? The Beatles piece "A Day in the Life" has one or two passages where the orchestra is instructed to glide from one pitch to another individually. It seems to fit your description. Since we are talking here about mainstream pop music, "avantgarde" or "atonal" is not really a fitting label, and "unpitched" also does not fit the bill as we are just talking unsynchronized pitched instruments.

Of course, your example of 4'33" trivially meets the label "unpitched". And so does a number of purely percussive pieces (note that some percussive instruments have determinate pitch as well, like timpani and cowbells, and some are used melodically, like tubular bells, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta...).

So generally your description covers a rather large body of music, large enough that it would probably be a bit difficult to subsume all of it under a single label.

  • I wasn't looking for a genre label that has to give an idea of what the piece sounds like - simply a term for music made essentially from sounds of indeterminate pitch. It would cover a wide body of music, but then so would a term like 'polyrhythmic' or 'diatonic'. – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '15 at 13:29

The term 'indefinite pitch' is used in Australian schools.


The word you're looking for is Atonal

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    atonal just means it's not written in any key, which is very different from "without any identifiable notes", which is not a lack of tonality. I have no idea what the original poster wants. – thang Feb 22 '15 at 18:50
  • Atonal has come to mean music without a tonal 'center' - so while it could be correct to describe the pieces I've mentioned as atonal, it's lumping them in with works such as 12-tone technique works - I was looking for a term that would distinguish them. – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '15 at 18:53
  • Which is what I was doing- describing the pieces you mentioned. 12-tone technique works are their own separate thing, no matter how people lump them together. – Chris Homsey Feb 23 '15 at 1:15
  • @ChrisHomsey sure, I don't think the downvotes are deserved. – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '15 at 13:16

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