David McCleery. p. 27, Liner note to Discover Music of the Twentieth Century.

Between 1912 and 1923 he [Schoenberg] wrote very few works, dedicating his time instead to developing the twelve-tone technique which would provide him with the framework he needed for atonal composition. The fruition of all this work can be found in the last of his Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23 – a Waltz (CD 1, track 2). It is based strictly on a twelve-note row, but the listener should not try to hear where the row starts and stops; the serial construction is more a framework within which the composer can work than a device to help the listener appreciate the piece.

  1. Is McCleery wrong that listeners "should not try to hear where the row starts and stops"?

I know that he's discussing Schoenberg in this quote, but I think McCleery's wrong as Gil Shaham and Leonard Bernstein (at 1:08:01 in his 5th of 6 Norton Lectures) expound Berg's Violin Concerto by spotlighting Berg's (perhaps tonal, triadic, unoriginal) tone row. Why would they do so, if listeners oughtn't track tone rows?

  1. In general, what are the cons of following tone rows for listeners?

  2. What are the pros?

1 Answer 1


One possibility is the distinction between the composers being discussed. Schoenberg was more free with his use of the twelve-tone method, often repeating or reordering pitches. (He wasn't the only serial composer that did this; I believe it was Boulez that said he used serialism as a starting point and felt comfortable making adjustments later.) As such, sometimes it can be more confusing to try to spot where Schoenberg's row forms begin and end, because he had a tendency to obfuscate the rows a bit.

Contrast Schoenberg's compositional style with Webern's. Webern was surgically precise with his use of the row forms; you're hard pressed to find anything "out of line" (or perhaps "out of row") in his music. And for what it's worth, I think Webern would have argued that you should listen for the row forms. More than that, he believed that you could do it; he famously envisioned a future where the mail carrier would be whistling twelve-tone rows as they walked their route.

As for Berg, he often split the difference between Schoenberg and Webern; he wasn't always as strict as Webern, but he was also not as loose as Schoenberg. This may be why Bernstein and Shaham encourage you to listen to the row forms in the Berg concerto. (Keep in mind too that this particular row form is very easy to identify, depending on whether it starts by step or skip. I'd also hesitate to call that row form "unoriginal"!)

A big pro of listening for row forms is that these forms often delineate the form. Throughout music history, form is typically regarded as the most important emotional element of the piece. Understandably, then, identifying the row forms to determine the form is of prime importance (pardon the pun).

One possible con is the same drawback we encounter whenever we focus too much on one aspect of anything: we run the risk of falling victim to perceptual blindness.

Lastly, with questions like this, there's always the possibility that McCleery is simply wrong about this, no matter who the composer in question is.

  • Another typically recondite answer from Richard. I'd just add that another good reason to not try to hear where the 12 tone row starts and stops is that it's unnatural: we don't hear 12 tone rows as musical units, if we're normal mortals and not music majors or worse, because they are not related to any natural musical structure. And no, I'm not holding my breath on hearing my post person whistling tone rows. Greg Bear, in his great sci fi novel Queen of Angels, similarly envisions his main character in the year 2048 humming "pop twelvetone", but I won't hold my breath on that either. Mar 12, 2019 at 19:11

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