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Post-tonal music theory is the set of theories put forward to describe music written

outside of, or 'after', the tonal system of the common practice period.


1 Overview

2 Theory

3 Application

4 Further developments

5 Examples

6 Sources

7 Further reading

In the latter part of the 19th century, composers began to move away from the tonal
system. This is typified in Richard Wagner's music, especially Tristan und Isolde (the
Tristan chord, for example). Arnold Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern proposed a
theory on the emancipation of the dissonance to help analyse the general trend and, in
particular, their own atonal music. Composers such as Charles Ives[1], Dane Rudhyar[2],
and even Duke Ellington[3] and Lou Harrison[4], connected the emancipation of the
dissonance with the emancipation of society and humanity.
The basic idea is that as time progresses, the ear becomes acclimatised to more and
more complex sounds. This happens not just for individuals but also for societies as
they start to write more complex music. Consonance and dissonance become indistinct
from each other: dissonances slowly become heard as consonances. Jim Samson [5]
explained it this way: "As the ear becomes acclimatized to a sonority within a particular
context, the sonority will gradually become 'emancipated' from that context and seek a

new one. The emancipation of the dominant-quality dissonances has followed this
pattern, with the dominant seventh developing in status from a contrapuntal note in the
sixteenth century to a quasi-consonant harmonic note in the early nineteenth. By the
later nineteenth century the higher numbered dominant-quality dissonances had also
achieved harmonic status, with resolution delayed or omitted completely. The greater
autonomy of the dominant-quality dissonance contributed significantly to the weakening
of traditional tonal function within a purely diatonic context."

[edit] Theory
Music written within the tonal system is generally analysed by defining a certain note as
the primary or "Tonic" note and the derived triad is the "Tonic" chord. Other notes and
chords are subservient to the Tonic and in a strict hierarchy: the "Dominant" note/chord
is second in importance, others are lower down still. One example of this style of
analysis is called Schenkerian analysis. However, this form of analysis cannot be
applied to Atonal music since the very point is to make all the notes and chords equal:
there is no hierarchy. Instead, notes/chords can be described in terms of their properties
and relationships at any particular moment: whether one note is higher than another,
whether one chord has more notes than another, whether one chord is more widely
spaced than another, and so on. One can also compare and contrast different strings of
notes as transpositions (change in pitch) or inversions (change in note order) of each
other. These terms are also used compare chords. These methods of analysis have
been used for centuries but became more important as music began to lose its tonal
basis. One also needs to consider other aspects, such as how two or more
simultaneous melodies relate to each other (counterpoint) and the same tools are used
for this.
In the later 20th century, analysts started to adapt these tools to the yet more complex
music being written. Musical set theory was first elaborated for tonal music[6] but was
quickly applied to atonal music[7] since it simply provides concepts for categorizing
musical objects (notes, chords, melodies and so on) and describing their relationship,

without defining any particular note or chord as "primary". The later Transformational

theory[8] uses a similar approach but concentrates on the relationships themselves.

There are also theories which attempt to relate pitch and rhythm.

[edit] Application
Compositional applications of these theories are numerous, but in the present context of
"Post-tonal" music the most important is Serialism. In this system, certain notes are
chosen then written in an order eg E-F-C-B-G-F. (Usually there is no repetition, but
this is not always observed.) These notes are then used as the basis for a composition
by playing them in the original order, in reverse order (Retrograde), in "upside down"
order (Inversion ie upward intervals now go down, and vice versa), or both (Retrograde
Inversion or "Reversion" [Stravinsky's term]), and then transposed up or down. Chords
can also be formed out of the "Series" and these can be treated to similar techniques.
Schoenberg used these methods in what has become known as Twelve-tone technique.
In this, all unique twelve notes of the musical scale are played once and once only in a
specified order. The serial techniques described above are then applied.[9] Later
composers, such as Jean Barraqu and Pierre Boulez, sought to unify pitch and rhythm
by organising the elements into sets of twelve, which resulted in what became known as

Total Serialism.[10] See also Formula composition which describes techniques used by
Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Aside from Serialism, other forms of compositional technique arose such as those
based on chords utilizing fourths rather than the more traditional thirds (see Quartal and
quintal harmony and Synthetic chord), those based on other mathematical processes
(see Schillinger System and those based on specific scales (or "modes": see Hexatonic
scale, Heptatonic scale, Octatonic scale and Synthetic scale). Olivier Messiaen in his
work The Technique of my Musical Language developed what he called Modes of
limited transposition which displayed a special type of symmetry and which he used in
numerous compositions.

[edit] Further developments

Microtones and especially Quarter tones have been used in music of the 20th and 21st
centuries. These are the notes smaller than a semitone. A full theory governing these
has yet to be developed but the articles relating to these contain some of the most
recent thoughts. (See 15 equal temperament, 19 equal temperament, 24 equal
temperament, 34 equal temperament and 72 equal temperament.)

[edit] Examples

The notes A-B-C-D can be transposed downwards to A-B-C-D (the , called a

flat, lowers the pitch by one semitone) or upwards to D-E-F-G (the note D is a
perfect fourth higher than the note A, E the same amount higher than B and so

The chord C-E-G can be transposed upwards to C-E-G (the , called a sharp,
raises the pitch by one semitone).


The notes D-F-E-B can be reversed to B-E-F-D - This form of inversion is called


The upward intervals can become downward intervals and vice versa - This is
the form that is properly called Inversion.

These two can be combined and the result can be transposed: these are
inclusive rather than exclusive processes.

When viewing the following musical examples, it may help to imagine a mirror being
placed between the various versions:

How Retrograde and Inversion work

Play (helpinfo).

The chord C-E-G can be inverted to E-G-C or G-C-E - This is called the Inversion

of a chord.

Two lines ("parts") of music can be "inverted" so that the original lower one is
made to sound above the original higher one - this is Inversion of counterpoint
and can be applied to any number of parts.