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I'm studying Op. 22 by Anton Webern for my AS music. I have 2 teachers and a revision guide, each of which uses one of the terms listed in the question and avoids the other two. I just wanted to see if there is a distinction between the terms and if so what it is.

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Serialism refers to a number of compositional techniques or styles, the most well-known of which is 12-note serialism. Generally, serialism means music which is governed by one or more series of values (often pitch, but sometimes dynamics, tempi, rhythm) which are reused throughout the piece to give a sense of unity.

In 12-note serialism, a specific ordering of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale called the tone row is defined and reused in various forms throughout the piece. The first appearance of this tone row is called the prime order. The tone row is usually repeated throughout the piece in different forms. It may appear again subsequently in different orders and inversions, (retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion).

So, to answer the question, there isn't a difference as such between the terms you mention, just that the term 'prime' describes the particular iteration of the 12-note tone row. I have not come across the term "serial" describing a tone row before, I think it refers more to the actual 'serial process' of composition.

See the Wikipedia entries for serialism and tone rows. If you want some extra reading/listening, comapre Webern and Schoenberg's 12-note serialism to the broader interpretations of the post-war composers, where they used pitch, duration, dynamics, AND articulation as series.

  • Great answer you really covered everything there and I can understand the difference now. I'll take a look at extra stuff you mentioned too. Not a big fan of listening to expressionist music but it's worth looking at to have a wide knowledge of music. It is the textbook that uses the term 'serial' in ways such as "the serial can then be retrograded, inverted and/or transposed". Not sure if that is a valid use of the term or not. – Tim Hargreaves May 11 '16 at 22:19
  • Glad you understand now! Yeah I don't really get the way the textbook uses it but just roll with it I guess... As for listening out for tone rows, the technique was used by a huge number of composers - have a listen to Shostakovich's string quartets. This essay introduces the philosophy of serialism quite nicely and also Shostakovich's approach quartets.de/compositions/ssq12.html Apparently Bach also had a go at serialism before it was even invented, what a guy! npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112602288 – ChristopheLynch May 11 '16 at 22:28
  • Good answer and I gave you a an upvote. However, I should clarify that the prime form of the row is determined by the labeling on the matrix, not the first row appearance used in a composition! – user3235 Jun 17 '18 at 21:59

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