As music evolves and grows over the years it can often get increasingly difficult to trace back a primary originator of a technique, style or method in synthesis, composition, music technology development etc. Serialism is no exception when trying to pinpoint precisely, though it's generally agreed it emerged in the 1920s, primarily developed by Arnold Schoenberg (though his style was thought more of as 12 tone serialism), though not solely by him (Griffiths 1978).
Besides identifying the origin of a music technique and who invented or innovated what, the question must be asked as to how has the development affected contemporary music up to recent times? And to what extent? To start off, even at first glance it's noticeable that serialism was quickly taken up by later influential composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (Maconie 1976) , Henri Pousseur (Griffiths 1978), and Iannas Xenakis (Harley 2004), (amongst many others), even though they were to modify it even further.
As long as Serialism has been around it doesn't take a scholar to note that it remains primarily unnoticed by the general public and has not, in any significant way penetrated to mainstream recognition (Spielvogel 2008). This may or may not have been its aim, though it could be an indication of its limits, in an aural sense, as a widely influential technique in composition, or at least producing music that attracts a wide audience. That being said it can't be denied that it's indispensable to a composer that is not only desirous of breaking free of musical tradition, but desirous of finding a technique that allows a wide range of choice in how to structure a composition.
Of course, though, when considering the lack of mainstream recognition of serial music, and even other forms of avant gard music, the reason would obviously be its tendency to concern itself primarily with its mathematical foundations rather than the 'end product' of what the general listener's ears register as 'music'.
One could add to these as well, that another 'limit' of serialism in music could be how the technique has very little effect on not only the sound, but also how that prevents a general 'unification' of the sound, in the same way a music genre can be identified generally, by simply listening to it, for example Jazz or House Music. This simply limits a listener in critiquing any music falling under the banner of serialism, to rely almost solely on their intellect and logic, as opposed to any sense of musicality.
But this is not only in consideration of the listener on the matter, but also that of the composer, who can run into a perplexing conundrum when trying to apply the complexities of serialism taken to its extremes toward a desired sound the composer may be looking for. So in that case it could be considered a good experimental tool while somewhat hit and miss when having a specific musical goal in mind.
At the end of the day it can pay a great service to the function of scholarly and technical analysis, but may be left lacking when utilising the technique in order to build and expand upon the 'aural repertoire' of the general music listener.
By Luke Cartledge
Maconie, Rubin The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, London, New York, Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1976
Griffiths, Paul, A Concise History of Avant Gard Music, New York : Oxford University Press, 1978
Harley, James Xenakis, His Life in Music, New York : Routledge, 2004
Spielvogel, Jackson, Western Civilization, Alternate Volume, Since 1300, Cencage Learning