Do any of you know of any examples of tonal serialism? That is, pieces that sound tonal, appear at first glance to be tonal, yet obey the rules of 12-tone serial composition as laid down by the Second Vienna School?


What "sounds tonal" is a matter of opinion, but the series used Berg's violin concerto certainly has tonal implcations. The first 9 notes form overlapping chords of G min, D maj, A min, E maj. The roots G D A E are the open strings of the solo violin and the chord progression obviously can create tonal cadences.

The final notes of the series form a whole tone scale. Berg directly quotes a chorale by JS Bach where the first line of the chorale tune, an ascending 4-note whole tone scale, matches the end of the series.



  • Excellent example. I had totally forgotten about the Berg conerto when I was pondering my question. But you are right - it's VERY tonal. Thanks for reminding me! – L3B Mar 11 '17 at 22:43

Not exactly a “serious composition”, really not something that properly obeys any serial rules, but I'd like to mention this piece by German cabaretier Bodo Wartke:

The piece begins at 5:00, but the best part is really the introduction. Translation:

[Pretentiously plays a rather silly tone series]

‘You just heard a piece in twelve-tone technique, or as the expert would call it, Dodecacophony.

‘A method of composition which traces its roots mainly to composer Arnold Schönberg, twelve-tone music is based, as the name suggests, on twelve tones, on the piano being the seven white keys CDEFGA and H, and five black C♯D♯F♯G♯A♯ (or, depending on the musical key, D♭E♭G♭A♭B♭).

‘A distinction is made between successive and simultaneous twelve-tone music. Successive we just heard; simultaneous sounds like this:’

[Dramatic pause]

[Bangs hist elbows on the keyboard, thus playing a chromatic cluster]

‘This is of course the tone palette of which essentially all music consists, which raises the question what makes twelve-tone music so special?

‘Well, in other genres such as German folk music, there is an attitude that some keys are better than others. Thus one finds in German folk music mainly white, in the Americal Jazz on the other hand oftentimes black. Unfortunately there are in German folk music still some uncorrigible who think too many black would take away the jobs from the white – which is of course utter nonsense, in particular seeing as even German folk musicians will all too readily also exploit the black. — ...Tonally.

‘In twelve tone music, such behaviour is right off the table, for here reigns absolute egality. We might say, the communist principle. Here, no tone is allowed to sound again before all eleven others have sounded. This is fair, in this manner every tone gets the same share and everybody is happy.

‘The problem is only, it always sounds like shit.

‘Yes, however we look at it, it's like saying a sentence in which you can use every letter only once... but all have to appear. Try it. Also sounds like sh[mumble mumble]

‘I think for this reason twelve-tone music is like communism too: in principle a good idea, but unfortunately completely failed in reality.

‘Now, of course there are always people saying “wait! Perhaps mankind is just not ready for communism!” That's how I also see it with twelve-tone music. I have asked myself, what's to be done, how can we make both palatable to mankind?

‘As for communism, well... er, dunno, but as far as twelve-tone music is concerned I have found a solution which I'd like to present to you. I will thereto play the previous composition again, but now in a slight variation. For starters, I add a somewhat...complaisanter accompaniment from American Jazz: Swing.’

[Starts playing a walking bass line]

‘Next I add a short theatrical scene to the whole from which the tones will sensibly arise. It is set in a restaurant between a guest and a waiter. It begins in succesive twelve-tone music and ends simultaneous.

‘The guest says to the waiter:

‘ “Maître d'?”

‘ “What can I do for you?” ’

[With a kind of lisp]‘ “I would like the fiss[ Fis is the German word for F♯ ]
[Accentuates the note F♯ within the harmonic pattern]

‘ “Excuse me, what would you like?”

‘ “The fisss!”

‘ “Surely you mean the fish?”

‘ “Yes, as I was saying. The fiss!”

‘ “Methinks you have a slight speech disorder?”

‘ “A thpeet-th dithorder?”

‘ “Oh, never mind, so you take the fish.”

‘ “Yes. And as a starter I would like the tathty asparaguth soup, please.”

‘ “Very well. And what would you like to drink?”

‘ “An orange juith. If you have: high C.”

‘ “Yes, we do have that brand. And for desse-a[D♭,E,A]?”

‘ “An eise[E♯]. — But first the fis, please.”

‘ “With pleasure.”

‘ Half an hour later:

‘ “Maître d'?”

‘ “What can I do for you?” ’

‘ “Guess what was in my soup‽” ’

‘ “Asparagus?” ’

‘ “A hair![B] Yes indeed! And in my fis are bones!” ’

‘ “Fish bones? Excuse me, this cannot be, this is a filet.” ’

...you get the general idea; the rest can't really be translated. (The story ends with the guest choking on a fish bone and collapsing onto the keyboard.)

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