The use of atonal music and altogether lack of pitched sound is commonplace in today’s music scene (not to say that it’s accepted as music by the masses, but it still is prevalent). But it didn’t come about randomly, a sequence of events led to the abolition of organised tonal music in some compositional works.
This begins with the composer Wagner, with whom leitmotif is most associated. He is famous in particular also for his “Tristan” chord, a dissonant one which incorporated essential notes that were to be associated with the theme of the character Tristan in the play Tristan and Isolde.
From Wagner and his use of slight or very temporary dissonance, the composer Shoenberg developed extended tonality which eventually led to atonality. It seems absurd that atonal music is not received well by the masses, or often not considered worth listening to, when we are surrounded by it all the time. As Huxley has said, “The 20th century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” (Gann p.136, 2010)
This is due to our “focused listening” ability. We are able to block out the noises that comprise our everyday lives.
Focused listening contrasts with peripheral listening, in which the ear remains open to sounds from any direction or distance, scanning the environment for information from anywhere.” (Rothenberg & Ulvaeus p. 61, 2001)
When we are subjected to atonal music it is somewhat difficult to listen to as there is a lack of structure that arises from the lack of harmony and thus, musical direction. This is where serialism enters. Using strict mathematical models, serialism creates music free of the dictates of a standard key. Minimalism is thought of as a reaction to the rigid, complex nature of serialism’s mathematical models. Minimalism stripped music to its bare minimum. While most minimalist music consists of repeated phrases, some early minimalist/experimental compositions abandoned pitched notes altogether, stripping music to its barest minimum, and much like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a work consisting of an untouched urinal (save for a traditional artist signature) to reinforce the question, what is art? It makes us question what music is.
John Cage found his answer to what music truly is through, among other things, Zen Buddhism. He found the music of the universe to be always occurring once we tune into it, or out of our “focused listening”.
Many people scoff at 4’33”. But I once performed it for a class of new freshmen, and a young woman exclaimed afterward with surprised delight, “I never realised there was so much to listen to!” Perhaps that’s exactly the kind of musical sartori Cage hoped to bring about. (Gann p. 145, 2010)
Cage wanted to create a piece which showed the music of the universe. Unable to truly achieve this through aleatoric elements in his compositional process, he eventually came up with his famous piece 4’33”, a piece completely devoid of organised or pitched sound. It answered the question proposed by experimental minimalism of what music is, showing it to be the absence of silence.
Since this piece and with the introduction of electronic technologies used in sound production and recording, “sound” music has been inducted into contemporary music, whether it be a soundscape or music based on sound effects, or anything involving sound.
Battock, G. 1981, Breaking the Sound Barrier, E. P. Dutton, New York.
Gann, K. 2010, No Such Thing as Silence, Yale University.
Navas, E. 2006-2011, Remix Theory, last viewed 2 May 2011
Rothenberg, D & Ulvaeus, M. 2001, The Book of Music and Nature, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.