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Atonality and Noise

From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2016
Chapter Six – The 20th Century: “Dissolution”

“And so ‘Emancipation of the Dissonance’ turns out to be ‘Expurgation of the Consonance.’ It is a unique and drastic application of the old pleasure-pain principle. In this instance, goes the implicit reasoning, if the pleasurable is totally removed, then the painful ceases to exist.”

from Schönberg’s Error by William Thomson

The Beginnings

Arnold Schönberg was born in 1874 in Vienna to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. In March 1900, he began work on a romantic orchestral and vocal masterpiece called Gurrelieder. Work on this large-scale orchestra composition with soloists and three choirs was often interrupted because Schönberg needed to earn money orchestrating operettas. He composed Gurrelieder through 1903, then put aside the huge job of orchestrating the work until 1910, finally completing it in 1911. It received its first performed in Vienna in February 1913.  Gurrelieder is a masterpiece that presents the final statement of the 19th-century Romantic Music Era, as it’s music, romantic and tonal, also hints at the sturm und drang (stress and anxiety) on which the composer will increasingly focus his music, like his mentor Gustav Mahler (6th Symphony, 1903).

Composer Arnold Schönberg (Getty Images)

     After 1903, when not working on Gurrelieder, Schönberg was creating a new direction for musical composition in the 20th century, one that he felt transcended the music of the Romantic Era of the previous century. This new direction in music became more and more obvious with each new work that he composed during that period: works such as his String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7 of 1905 and the Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9 of 1906. Schönberg took a cue from the music of Gustav Mahler: he began creating a music that was more and more stressful: a music, by the way, that was fit for the industrial age that began its plunge at the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of automobiles and the spread of electricity, radio, and telephones. Stress was becoming natural to life and to art as well, and that is where the new music of the Viennese composers Mahler, Schönberg, and Schönberg’s pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg was heading. Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 of 1909 unveiled a vision of the dark future ahead for 20th-century industry and war.
     Around the year 1908, Schönberg turned to what is now known as atonality, a term that was coined years later to represent music that has no roots in tonality and does not conform with the system of harmony employed throughout the world during the previous centuries. Between 1908 to 1915, he composed in an ‘atonal’ style, with music grounded with no tonal center and employing non-traditional chords and free use of dissonant harmonies.
     On Mar 31, 1913, Schönberg conducted a concert of music in Vienna that included his own Chamber Symphony, Opus 9 along with works by his students Berg and Webern. The audience whistled, laughed, and shouted insults and fist fights broke out. After the performance of Berg’s Orchestral Song, Op. 4, No. 2, the concert was abruptly terminated, and the hall was cleared by the police. There had never been a scandal such as this.
     Two months later, however, another riot erupted, this time in Paris, and the music was Igor Stravinsky’s dark and grotesque Rite of Spring that shocked the Parisian audience, who were expecting music similar to his two previous and successful ballets: the luxurious Firebird and the fantasy-like Petrushka.  Discordant and barbaric, the work’s premiere on May 29, 1913, erupted into chaos at the Theater des Champs-Elysées.
     During the early 1920s, Schönberg continued composing in his new discordant style, introducing a new technique that he called his “method of composing with 12 tones related only to one another”, or the twelve-tone method. The music was still atonal and was even more discordant than before, but now he had a system, one that he considered a replacement for the harmonic system that had been in use during the past centuries. He considered that his new system would compensate for a lack of tonality. In his book Harmonielehre Schönberg stated that “continued evolution of the theory of harmony is not to be expected at present.” Schönberg was desperate to go down in the hall of fame of music history, and he will.
     Schönberg’s theory was simply a theory, however. It discounted for the first time the basis of all concordant harmony in music, dating to antiquity, based on nature’s own overtone series. Schönberg told us that because dissonances were simply upper partials in the overtone series, they should be treated just the same as any other partials, on an equal basis. What he no longer wanted to recognize was the priority, or weight of each partial in the scheme of natural harmony, the building blocks of creation.
     By the mid 1920’s Schönberg’s music was being given a little more attention than before, but it was clearly different than the dominant style of contemporary classical music of that time, a style called neoclassism that had been invented by Igor Stravinsky. In 1924, Schönberg moved to Berlin to teach at the Prussian Akademie der Künste. There, more performances of his music took place. However, on December 2nd, 1928, when conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler premiered Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra, the performance was disrupted by hooting from the audience.
     After the 1933 Hitler coup, Schönberg, who was not only a composer who had been branded decadent, but also a Jew, fled to Paris. He then moved to America, where he took a teaching job in Boston, followed by a final move to Los Angeles.
     His “method of composing with 12 tones related only to one another” was first published in 1949. This was the first time that he had made his method public. He had begun explaining it to his pupils in 1923, however. Now, other composers began adopting the method, applying it to their own compositions. One by one, composers studied Schönberg’s technique as it had become de rigeur in university music-theory classes. After Schönberg’s death, even the ‘great’ Stravinsky, who had been in heated competition with Schönberg for the title of “The Twentieth-Century’s Greatest Composer”, finally adopted the 12-tone method himself, spewing out a series of extremely ugly works, many of them using sacred texts. These 12-tone works were certainly not a tribute to Schönberg, who had lived near him in Hollywood for years, and with whom he had refused to meet, but were most likely, the final conquering of his rival — a conquering by absorbing Schönberg himself, waiting until Schönberg’s demise, of course. This was a self-assurance that in the end, Stravinsky would be the victorious candidate for Greatest Composer of the Twentieth Century. But these ugly 12-tone works were the straw that broke the back of one of Stravinsky’s greatest supporters, the French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, in obvious distress, decried to her stunned students that 12-tone music just did not work!

Schönberg's Error

     As I write this at the dawn of the 21st century, I realize that not many people yet understand the concept of negative music, which is what Schönberg’s atonal music was, (allowing free use of dissonance as it did) nor have they realized what Schönberg accomplished with his music. Students, educated in the method in music theory and composition courses at major universities, took what they learned from Schönberg’s music into the world of motion pictures and TV, where it was used in the creation of what may have been the prevalent art form of the century: violent and frightening movies and television shows, where negative music was used to stir up the appropriate negative emotions in the audience!
     Understanding the reality that negative music was the keynote of the 20th Century is left for the 21st century to discover.
     There is at least one man, however, who understood the truth about Schönberg. His name is William Thomson. He wrote a book about what he calls “Schönberg’s Error”.

What was Schönberg’s error?
(from the book Schönberg’s Error by William Thomson)

“Renunciation of even the primal tonal archetypes bequeathed him by his full musical heritage, believing all the while that he was rejecting only the major-minor conventions of his immediate past. He did not understand the full ramifications of his renunciation, a denial that if followed rigorously entailed abandonment of the full range of structuring potentials of pitch. His transformation of music was motivated by the same hubris that in the world’s myths spells the tragic downfall of heroes who try to call the shots of destiny.

“Schönberg thought he was fueling music’s flight to the next plateau, in its ascent toward a musical heaven. He was only fueling the ambitions of a singularly enormous talent and establishing a brief, strange interlude in an art’s checkered history. It is true, as some contemporaries have said, that “he showed us the way.” But, some eighty years later, we must recognize that his way fell short of becoming the next Golden Age so anxiously sought during the beginning of the twentieth century. Nor was it the inexorable “way” that music’s hop-scotching development had pointed toward in the long haul of history. As evolution, it was an ill-conceived, though passionately propagandized, mutation. It was an achieving far more radical than Schönberg dreamed.”


Bingo! William Thomson is right on the money. His book presents all the background material to support the above statements. It is interesting to read that Schönberg’s knowledge of music history, even of German music written before the 18th century, was severely limited and that the likelihood of his knowing about the music of Monteverdi, Lassos, Victoria or any of the great composers of the 16th, 17th or early 18th centuries was non-existent. Glenn Gould commented that Schönberg had “little interest in music prior to the time of Bach [and] was suspicious (and possibly a bit envious) of such musicologically astute colleagues as Krenek and Webern,” adding as well that he “regarded medieval modes as ‘a primeval error of the human spirit.'” That statement alone must be classified among the most ignorant quotations ever made by a musician who is considered to have a very high stature! Schönberg went against tradition. He did not even follow the example of his own original role models Brahms and Wagner, who studied music as far back as the 16th Century. Schönberg threw out the baby with the bath water.
     Arnold Schönberg died in 1951. By this time, he was being dismissed as old-fashioned by a new generation of younger composers like Boulez and Stockhausen. They instead followed the path of Schönberg’s student Anton Webern. Webern’s music was completely intellectual, whereas Berg’s and Schönberg’s still contained elements of emotionalism, even though it was dark. Webern was totally mental. He boiled music down to brilliant little intellectual pearls, mathematical equations, emotionless. The effect of this music is confusion, however. It was from Webern that the most prominent group of composers during the second half of the century progressed: Feldman, Boulez, Stockhausen, Madera, Berio, Xenakis, Christian Wolff among them.
    Webern had a strong influence on Boulez. The Sonatine for Flute and Piano that Boulez composed in 1946 combined what he had learned of Schönberg and Webern’s methods of 12-tone (also called serial) composition with the rhythmic techniques of Messiaen.  In Structure 1a (for two pianos), Boulez extended the serial technique to serialized pitch, duration, dynamics, and mode of attack. Boulez is a brilliant composer, as anyone studying Pli Selon Pli can probably attest, but his is the ultimate in brilliant intellectual music based on discords. Karlheinz Stockhausen was also influenced by Messiaen, Schönberg, and Webern. Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs had been extremely influential on the music of both Stockhausen and Boulez, the later showing this influence in Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel of 1951. Herbert Eimert told Stockhausen that Mode de valeurs was “punktuell”, and thus the term pointillist was born. Stockhausen explained:
    “Pointillist — Why? Because we hear only single notes, which might almost exist for themselves alone, in a mosaic of sound; they exist among others in configurations which no longer destine them to become components of shapes, which intermix and fuse in the traditional way; rather they are points amongst others, existing for themselves in complete freedom, and formulated individually and in considerable isolation from each other. Each note has a fixed register and allows no other note within its preserve; each note has its own duration, its own pitch and its own accentuation.”

The Final Stage - Noise and Silence – John Cage

     Following the fixation on the music of Anton Webern, an “Era of Noise and Silence” was ushered in by American composer John Cage.

     Noise, and then silence, was the result of a complete disintegration in music, and this occurred not only in Western classical music (Edgard Varèse, John Cage), but in Jazz (Coltrane, Sanders, Sun Ra) and Rock (MC Five, Blue Cheer, Greatful Dead) as well, when “everyone is just doin’ their thing” was considered the ultimate in freedom during the artistic revolution of the 1960s.
     It all began with a composer by the name of John Cage. Cage studied with Arnold Schönberg for a short time beginning in 1933. He embraced Schönberg’s teaching about the equality of all musical intervals and elaborated by saying “what distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility.” But Cage would soon move beyond Schönberg, who detested Cage and his music. By 1937, Cage was saying “The present methods of writing music will be inadequate for the composer who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”

John Cage (1988)

    Cage later wrote: “…when Schönberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, ‘Of course.’ After I had been studying with him for two years, Schönberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.” “Harmony”, Cage wrote in 1954, “is a forced abstract vertical relation, which blots out the spontaneous transmitting nature of each of the sounds forced into it. It is artificial and unrealistic.”
     Around 1951 Cage began to redefine how he composed music, and that year he wrote his Music of Changes, where he tossed coins to determine the pitches and rhythmic values of the music. He got this idea from his student, Christian Wolff who had brought him an I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, which was consulted by tossing coins.
     Cage was deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, and from this influence, he defined a set of renunciations. First was the renunciation of expressivity, then the renunciation of structural controls, which he would renounce by using chance operations: a euphemism that he had invented for his coin tossing. In 1952, writing about his Music of Changes, Cage said:
     “It is thus possible to make a musical composition, the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and of the literature and “traditions” of the art. Value judgments are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening. The idea of relation (the idea: 2) being absent, anything (the idea: 1) may happen. A ‘mistake’ is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.”
     In other words, don’t force your will or your inspiration on the composition process anymore, just “let it happen.” And thus, Cage began to remove the composer from the process of composing. “Nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything was gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.”
     Schönberg introduced the freedom from tonality, allowing musicians and composers to choose freely from any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Cage went the distance by admitting any sound into his definition of music, thus eliminating scales, chords, and other traditional constructs altogether. All sounds were now music. Finally, we, the composers of that generation, could invite people into our bedroom, seat them, and play them a piece of improvised music by opening and closing drawers on the boudoir.
     This was the “freedom” that I witnessed in a New York City night club during the late 1960s when members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra strolled among the tables, each musician playing whatever he wanted, without regarding the other players. It was the “freedom” that I witnessed in the 1970s when the composition class at Sonoma State University, then sometimes referred to as that “touchy/feely” college located north of San Francisco, gathered in a large room and were invited to create musical chaos in the same manner by the class professor, who had a very long, gray ponytail. It was considered by some to be the music of cosmic consciousness, but it was just a way for the musicians to blow off steam.
     Schönberg invited in the age of freedom of notes and ushered in an era of chromatic anarchy; Cage ushered in the era of noise. Schönberg had said: “Get rid of tonality.” Cage said: “Get rid of music.”
     But perhaps we should give the credit not to Cage, but to another for the introduction of noise into the world of music. In fact, Cage himself gave him credit when he said in 1959 that it was “Edgard Varèse who fathered forth noise into twentieth-century music.” Varèse accepted “all audible phenomena as material proper to music.” He considered sound as the solid base of music, its raw material. “The intellectualism of the interval is a factor which for me has nothing to do with our age and its new concepts. As obsolete as the artificial versification of a Banville,” he wrote to Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola in 1952.
     Cage was a brilliant man, and his ideas, many based on his own understanding of Zen Buddhism, are philosophically very attractive. But the resultant music composed after his conversion to “chance operations” has little to offer musically, as it was written to support his philosophy… works such as his Europeras I & 2, where the singers sing bits and pieces from the opera repertoire selected by chance methods and fly across the stage on wires while a helium blimp floats off the stage and around the balcony… all while attentive, beautiful people in evening dress sit respectfully in the audience, ready to resound with their fully supportive and tumultuous applause. Cage’s music and his philosophy represented an important era in Western classical music. He released us from the confines of the 12-tone serial music of Schönberg by telling us that anything was music, and thus set the stage for the return of tonality, which will come from the ordering of noise.
     But Cage’s renovation would not be complete simply by accepting all sound, or noise, as music. Therefore, he added another element to his philosophical spectrum: silence. Cage’s composition 4’ 33” (“four minutes, thirty-three seconds”) was composed in 1952. The piece was a result of Cage’s first viewing of the totally white canvas made by his friend, the painter Robert Rauschenberg, who called the 1951 work White Painting, and by Cage’s visit to Harvard’s anechoic chamber, designed to eliminate all sound. For the performance of 4’33”, a tuxedoed performer walks onto the stage, carefully seats himself at a grand piano, opens the lid, occasionally turns some music pages, but otherwise sits as quietly as possible for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, after which he rises, bows, and leaves.
     On a number of occasions, Cage indicated that his silent piece 4’33” was his most important work. This clearly demonstrates that Cage’s main contribution to music was philosophical, not musical, since silence contains no sound, let alone music. Cage carefully brought music to an apparent end by convincing us that traditional music, from Beethoven to Webern, was invalid, and only by an appreciation of the randomness of the expression of natural sound, or the lack of it, could one be in tune with currents of true art and reality. He lured people into accepting his stylistic methods by use of reasoning, as had Schönberg when he talked about the “end of harmonic evolution and tonal melodic development”, i.e. the era of music that preceded each of these composers.
     Cage left his mark on the 1970s and 1980s, but the obvious dead-end that his paradox of silence and noise presented also opened the door for the return to tonality. Peter Yates, in his book Twentieth Century Music, said it all: “Music is born from the ordering of noise.”
     Thus, one of the results of the work of John Cage was the rebirth of the creation of tonal music by members of the next generation of composers, thanks to “The Hero from Across the Sea,” North Indian classical music.