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The Dichotomy of Tonal vs. Atonal: Why is this an argument anyway?

It seems that anytime you get classical musicians or composers together on an online forum the topic, or really the flame inducing debate, of atonal vs. tonal music comes up. Though atonal music (or to use the more inclusive term post-tonal) has been around for about 100 years, there seems to be no end to the number of pages of post, rebuttals, counter arguments, and comments these threads generate. This "debate" goes far beyond just threads about the topic. Any mention of atonality vs. tonality anywhere near classical music (i.e. comment section on articles, youtube videos, and Facebook post) there are many fervent commentators ready to start the back and forth on this issue. This dichotomy is also present in real life situations. The near decade I have been in college I have seen this debate divide schools of music. While other professors advocate new music, others go as far as forbidding or refusing to teach new music to their students. There are even books and scholarly journal articles that pit the two against each other. 

But this thread isn't about the merits of tonality and atonality, this thread is about the why. 

It appears on the surface that there is no reason to not like both. It is very reminiscent of many other dichotomies in pop culture:

Star Wars vs. Star Treck

West Coast Rap vs. East Coast Rap

Marvel vs. DC

Beetles vs. Rolling Stones

Band Geeks vs. Orchestra Dork vs. Choir Nerds

Why is this such a hot button issue in the music world (be it mostly online music world)? What is gained through these debates? What does engaging in this debate say about us? Does this dichotomy expose our insecurities about our own music, or show our need to be superior by tearing down the styles of others? Or is it just human nature to simplify a complex issue like post-tonality and reduce it down to a binary?

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I feel the sentiment of throw out the old and in with the post tonal is only expressed by a few (often Over quoted) composer who have said that. But in a sense they help fuel the fire of this debate so the same questions could be posed to them as well. Where they insecure or sought superiority in their music by diminishing the old?
This thread isn't about just personal preferences, it's about the almost zelot manner this debate has become. It's one thing to simply not like post tonal music or tonal music. It's another thing to attack the other side, diminish their contribution to music, and claim they are the cause of all musical woes.
Ignoring these issues don't make them go away now does it. This dichotomy is so prevalent on this form that has led to people being suspended or leave. Understanding why we are so passionate about this topic is the key to making this site more inclusive.

Hello Tyler,

I have participated in these discussions sometimes, though to a much lesser extent than people who get involved with hundreds of comments on what I see as wasteful threads that drive people away or cause them to be suspended. I think there is often a real issue at the heart of these discussions, though I don't place much value on the endless back and forth which seem to me to be more about philosophical nothings and personal posturing and trying to create interpersonal conflicts for titillation than on real contributions to the art of composition or which contribute in any meaningful way to this forum. In answer to your question "why?" - I think that some people have not enough compositions to contribute to this forum but still want to participate so what else can they do?

But this isn't an isolated this site only problem. The web and the world is littered with people heatedly and passionately debating this very topic.

Tyler, it's true, and I think it's because of that m*****f***er Schoenberg. Composers can't seem to shake the bogus (to me anyway) argument that he raised. I discounted it the instant I heard his music, but it seems to me that this is at the heart of many debates today, howevermuch his name may or may be mentioned in them.

There are similar debates in other fields for sure. For example, Christians battle ferociously over evolution, or whether salvation is by grace or works. They essentially damn the opposition to Hell, and accuse them of literally doing the Devil's work. And in Paleontology, there is a fight to-the-death over whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded; or whether T-Rex was a predator, or merely a super-sized scavenger. It just seems to be one of the things we humans like to do. No reason why it shouldn't happen in our field as well.

I think that part of the reason it engenders such debate here, is that music is one of those things that people like us tend to be passionate about. It's that important to us. It's bound up with the meaning of life for some of us, as life without it would be unimaginable, and not worth living. I don't know what I would do if I didn't have music to listen to, discuss and, yes, work on (I may be one of the irrelevant-thread commenters Gavin has in mind; rest assured, I am always working on my music, and eventually all of it will be posted, God/Allah/The Force etc. willing).

Well naturally, when debating musical styles one must invoke the creators of the style. It should be also noted that Schoenberg didnt raise the debate, his pupils where really the ones that drew the hard line in the sand. And before them Debussy did with the quote stating that, in so many words, Dominant/Tonic relationships are for child minded composers. It should also be noted that this debate really only exist among the misinformed online and absolutist of academia. Professional composers and musicians don't really choose one or the other, they pick music based on their taste and don't feel the need to proselytizing their preferences onto others.    
I posted this debate on another forum and one of the poster brought up a very interesting thing. That it comes from really what kind of person we feel our music does for us. To paraphrase, he said that fervent pro-atonal debaters seek intellectual superiority. I would add that fervent pro-tonal composers have a romantic ideal of their music. Feeling that, because their music is tonal and accessible, that it is better for society and more selfless. While atonal composers feel superior because they use techniques that are hard to understand, tonal composers feel they are superior because they are more selfless and write to contribute beauty. IN this case, both are seeking superiority by stating the other is either stupid or selfish. 

I also think that this debate rages on because of a unfounded fear that if the other is right, they must leave. People engage in these debates so fervently because of our need for self preservation and our fear of loosing what is essentially us. 

Tyler, there is clearly a divide between tonal and atonal composers. I speak nothing additional to that beyond what I said in my prior post about Schoenberg. But there is also a divide amongst tonal composers - those who compose in styles which are rooted in the past (many composers on this forum) and those who seek to be tonal but do something new (some composers on this forum). A lot of the debate over "which is better" seems to boil down to arguments between these 3 groups. Personally I am not interested in convincing anyone of anything and that is why I participate minimally or not at all in most of the debates. I seek only to post my music, get comments, and listen to the composers whose works strike me as beautiful or are at least headed in that direction, and offer commentary to them if I think it will help. I wish to point out what seems to be a notable work recently posted on this site, by a new member, Aaron Barnes. It strikes me that it exemplifies where modern composition should be: tonal, modern, new, http://composersforum.ning.com/forum/topics/cap-ritchie-o

I am an omnivorous  animal as far as listening goes and I write modally, tonally, non tonally and serially.

So I am not in any group or any camp.

I have my likes and dislikes like any other man but if the sound says something to me and is trying to communicate I usually pay attention.

I have formed most of my opinions already, but as long as I live I still learn.

I would like to participate to this conversation at first on two styles of music that I don’t really care about much, and I write my opinions (can be taken as polemics if one wishes to do so) in verse form.

I have already published the poems in another forum.

 

1

MUSIC MINIMALISM 1

 

The European challenge

Was serious and severe,

Impossible to match it,

Or come anywhere near.

 

Its social background,

Its inner mechanism,

Trying to forget about them,

Invent minimalism.

 

As long as farts sound different,

In every miniature,

There is a sense of newness,

Even if it's manure.

 

You may invent new names,

Music you couldn't invent,

Just cry out loudly,

Creates an event.

 

 2

FUSION BREEDING CONFUSION

 

This "Global Village" music fusion

in stadium or in concert hall

it is a matter of confusion,

to the musicians most of all.

 

The band is playing jingoistic,

the orchestra sounds Javanese,

the rock stars ever egoistic,

listeners worship on their knees.

 

This universal disco sound

on rhythmic Japanese machine,

our music culture, newly found,

as mach pathetic as obscene.

 

Plebian taste, glorified,

everything goes in the same pot,

Bach and Beethoven stand defied,

all you can say is "Why not?"

 

There goes again the chant, medieval,

with salsa rhythm in the background,

the lager louts in upheaval,

excited by this "new sound."

 

String section on single chord, sustaining,

the lead guitarist pedal-hooked,

my ears more or less abstaining,

this recipe sounds overcooked.

 

I've seen young kids doing it better,

not really knowing what they do,

at least they're honest to the letter,

they have been screwed, so now they screw.

 

The only thing been fucked is sound,

musical sound, once a bliss,

but what goes round must come round,

and then I'll say "I told you this."

 

*****

 

Oh, that's a style modulation;

wonder what else is in the bag,

Aeolian mode, what an elation,

mistaken for an Indian rag!

 

Is this what you call "Ethnic Style",

ignoring nations been involved?

Hindus or Greeks would simply smile,

simple equations, still unsolved.

 

Before you know your own tradition

you borrow music from Maghreb,

as if that was the sole condition

for been admired on the Web.

 

You print publicity material,

before you know how to play,

uploading in youtube your serial,

keeping true music far at bay.

 

The funniest thing is theorizing,

each species has its own guru,

his ignorance just emphasizing,

taken as wisdom, pulls him through.

 

fusing musak with roaring croud,

techno-latino-disco-rap,

the corpse of music on the ground,

21st century sound crap.

 

Curse of this art, ethnic musician,

you may suspect that I'm elite,

I'm nothing but strait logician,

who knows true music from bullshit.

 

Plebian taste, easy going,

for healthy ears simple to spot,

the writing on the wall is showing,

I've had enough, I've heard the lot.

We're emotional, and we're social animals, but very often clannish. I think some of that also helps explain why tonal music is appreciated by more people; its appeal to the emotions, which usually seems to be the point of music, one way or the other, is more direct, plus it has had a lot more exposure.   

Hi Paul,

Basically I agree, but

To me some of the works of all composers of the 2nd Viennese school are highly charged with emotion, but that's only me, and who am I to say to those composers that their works were non emotional?

I am only trying to understand them as best as I can and thus enrich my emotional experience by identifying with emotional states of other people living in other times and other locations.

In the end I feel more rich by this exercise and I try to learn their technical language and adopt it to my expressive needs for my own time and society/location. The same as others do with tonal music.

Anything wrong with that?



Paul Smith said:

We're emotional, and we're social animals, but very often clannish. I think some of that also helps explain why tonal music is appreciated by more people; its appeal to the emotions, which usually seems to be the point of music, one way or the other, is more direct, plus it has had a lot more exposure.   

Great poem, Socrates (By the way, stay away from hemlock).

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