IS ATONAL MUSIC ART?

origin_742439983A common attitude toward atonal music is that it is just random noise and should not be considered legitimate art music.  Many believe similarly about any music that is highly dissonant (atonality and dissonance may have similarities, but they are not the same).  So…what about it?  Is atonal music art? Do you believe dissonant music is art?

WHAT IS ATONAL MUSIC?

I will not go into great detail here, but atonal music actually occupies a place in music history, largely understood as being a distinct movement starting around the beginning of the 20thc (check out this link:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonal_music ).  The idea is that most of us are most familiar with “tonal” music, which conforms to concepts of harmony and key feeling…concepts which dominate “classical” music theory and which appear to be common not only in Western art music, but also in folk genres throughout the world at least since around the 15thc and possibly prior.  Yes, there are pre-tonal and atonal periods and areas of music (some would say these include early medieval chants and other parts of various folk genres across the globe), but the “atonal” movement is understood as being mostly a 20thc phenomenon that attempted to provide an alternative to what most folks believed was more consonant, harmonious music.  The atonal movement actually was characterized by quite a developed system of theory that utilized rules which ensured that no moment in a piece would be heard as “tonal”.  Consequently, many who heard it believed it was not pleasant or enjoyable…and proceeded to criticize it as being unmusical and unartistic.

WHAT IS DISSONANCE?

Dissonance, on the other hand, is common in “tonal” music.  In fact, some might argue that atonal music is not dissonant per se, because the dissonance in atonal music is only dissonant because we are used to tonal music.  Dissonance in tonal music, on the other hand, has always been a normal part of tonal music.  While we hear tonal music as having pleasant harmonies, most tonal music includes moments of dissonance here and there, creating a tension that often makes us long for resolution. 

…we should be wary of harshly judging things we do not understand…

Many composers (Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives) made frequent use of atonal concepts and passages to create pervasive dissonance and tension within otherwise tonal pieces…pushing the limits of how much atonal or dissonant material could be tolerated or enjoyed during an otherwise tonal piece.  So many composers and listeners are compelled to consider a balancing act: does the music employ dissonance in a way that tips the entire piece toward atonality, or does the dissonance work as a tension-creator within an otherwise tonal piece?  Jazz (and to a lesser extent, blues and rock) grapples with this concept as well.

IS DISSONANCE WRONG OR BAD?

Often my music students will play a note incorrectly because they claim the correct note “doesn’t sound right”.  Without realizing it, most of us are conditioned to “like” tonal music that is consonant and harmonious, and when we hear a dissonance we tend to think it is “wrong” or “sounds bad”.  We should realize, however, that this attitude is myopic.  As our understanding of art and music increases, most of us begin to appreciate the subtle beauty in things we formerly thought were unpleasant or boring.  There is nothing wrong with having musical preferences.  But we should be wary of harshly judging things we do not understand.

Maybe there’s something about the dissonance that the composer knows will speak to us at some deep level.

When I was a child, I really didn’t “get into” jazz or atonal music, but, as I grew, I began to like such music more and more.  If something really is uncreative and boring, then we may be justified in condemning it.  But we should take care to avoid criticizing something we don’t understand.  Is the music really boring and a piece of garbage, or am I simply not understanding it very well?

ATONALITY AND DISSONANCE CAN BE BEAUTIFUL

Most of us enjoy a good film without realizing that often the score includes several atonal or dissonant passages.  A movie soundtrack can enhance our viewing experience greatly, creating tension in a scary or gripping scene, or making a sad scene seem more intensely sad, or making a happy scene seem even more exciting.  If we were to hear these musical passages only as music, without watching any film, many of us likely would think these passages were not very musical.  But as a film score, they work amazingly well.  I don’t advocate that we should listen to dissonant music only when it’s part of a film we are watching, but this phenomenon should help us realize that the music itself has merit.  Maybe there’s something about the dissonance that the composer knows will speak to us at some deep level.

Time and again I am deeply moved when I view a film scene that juxtaposes, say, a war scene with some consonant and dissonant music all at once.  You can see the terror of the combat and destruction, along with the gunfire and explosions, and you can hear some terribly dissonant music that reflects the horror.  But, at the same time, you can also hear some sweet strains of very harmonious music flowing in the background.  This could represent the hope amid all the chaos, or it could signal how we often bypass the beauty and harmony and choose the more destructive path.  I often find this juxtaposition to be unbearably moving…and have tried my own hand at composing similar passages.

EMBRACE ARTISTIC VARIETY

So…in conclusion…I would submit that we should not be too quick to dismiss atonal and dissonant music as non-art.  The more we learn and grow, the more likely we will grow to like many of the things we used to think were not so great.  It’s OK to prefer listening to one genre of music over another.  It’s OK to have favorite pieces and composers and bands.  But let’s not be too quick to judge music harshly just because it sounds “bad”.  Let’s realize the problem may lie more with us.  Atonal and dissonant music can be extremely creative and beautiful.  It would be a shame if we missed out on all the variety that music has to offer.

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  • Robert Brandywine

    That’s the thing about atonal music, modern art, modern architecture, modern sculpture, modern writing (“Ulysses”) — you have to “understand”. Appreciating each of these is an intellectual exercise. Each has to be “explained” to be enjoyed. Most people will not put in the time to learn and understand, and that is why they will never be popular.

  • You make an interesting point. I suppose I would still contend that any art or science (modern, pre-modern, or post-modern) requires at least some degree of learning and understanding if one is to experience it on some deeper level than mere superficiality…and I would even include pop culture. Likewise, I’d say that one can experience all these things–including atonal music–in relatively superficial or disengaged ways (when enjoying a film, for example, and not realizing that much of the score is actually atonal or dissonant). I’m not certain that deeper appreciation requires only intellectual exercising, but surely such exercise is part of the process. I would agree that many folks miss out on many of the finer things of life because they are unwilling to put in the effort that it takes to dig deeper.