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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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Thanks, Michael, ... I get the drift.

:)

michael diemer said:

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


I love Berg... (Bartok, too.) I went through a phase many years ago where I didn't listen to much of anything BUT Berg. And my fiddle teacher had a high opinion of Bartok, which rubbed off a bit. Stravinsky, too. I love the polyrhythms there, and I got a real kick out of your mentioning the gamelan in your good poem. I love the gamelan orchestra, especially the Balinese version. I've been privileged to hear it in person twice on that beautiful island. QUITE a different effect than from hearing it on disk... You can really feel it in your bones and muscles. So, no, there's certainly nothing wrong with any of that. But for me, personally, I suppose I really feel like I need to be able to access the emotion in the music to connect with it. This is why some of the more academic modern music has so little appeal to me. I don't know... "grey is all theory," anyway, as the saying goes. We each make our own upward spirals as best as we can, hopefully. 
Socrates Arvanitakis said:

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.   

Been thinking more about this, and one thing I came up with is that atonal music does not have immediate appeal, for most listeners. It takes considerable effort to discern the patterns and appreciate the complexity. While tonally-based music does have immediate appeal. Why this is so probably is a question for neuroscience, but it is obviously true. And most people do not have the patience to invest the effort it takes to appreciate music, they just want the immediate gratification. This is also the same dynamic responsible for people not liking classical in general. And perhaps it ultimately has to do with how musically sophisticated you are. Most people have little or no musical ability. So they gravitate to the music that is easiest to grasp. I think it's probably true that the more musical ability you have, the more kinds of music you can appreciate, and even like. I like classical best, and tonally-based at that. I can enjoy and appreciate non-tonal/atonal/pantonal music, because if nothing else I can see the underlying complexity, and appreciate how it was put together, even if it doesn't really "do anything" for me (which means, contact me on an emotional level). But until this kind of music can evoke in me the kinds of emotional reactions that tonal music can, I'm going to follow my nose, so to speak.

I said in another thread; "A major scale is just another set of pitches.  Tonality is just another algorithim."

there is no debate really once you thoroughly understand this.  I would go as far as to say there isn't really much atonal music at all in the world if you know what you're looking at (i.e. If you understand enough advanced theory, sorry adadema-haters).  Almost ALL music has pitches.  In almost all music, those pitches have tendencies/audible relationships to other pitches,  In Atonal 'theory' a term used is "invariance".  In tonality, a leadting tone would be a good example.  Well crafted music, regardless of which one uses, has these audible relationships which guide the listener. And as far as Shoenberg goes, I suggest listening to His Op. 9.  It will become clear to you, very early on  (opus 9) he had extended so-called tonality pretty far and had more than justification to experimnet with something else i.e. through it all out.

Back to writing tuba music.

-t

Maybe we should classify music by the effect it has on people. Some music evokes powerful emotional responses. Some music is just pleasant to listen to. Some music is interesting more on an intellectual level.  Maybe we should just stop using the terms "tonal" and "atonal," and talk about "head music" vs "heart" music" vs "ear music." And folk music, film music, top 40, etc. They all have different uses, and it's because they have different effects on the listener. The term "New Music" also doesn't make much sense anymore, since what people mean by it is music that began a hundred years ago. As Kristofer has pointed out, and to paraphrase the incomparable Yogi Berra, "Avant-garde" ain't what it used to be." (My favorite Yogi-ism: "The future ain't what it used to be").

Can I have a bit of clarification or quantification on this issue:

1) How many people have either been suspended, or driven to leave, due to discussions about a supposedly irreconcilable divide between supporters of "tonal" and "pantonal" (sometimes called "atonal") music?

2) Isn't it obvious that people who want to discuss such issues can, on certain specified threads, and people who wish to discuss something else (topic X), can do so, and ignore discussions they don't like; and isn't it also obvious that people who wish to have variety may visit any number of threads, as they see fit?

My theory would be that people "leave," or drop out, not because they see conversation threads or posted remarks they don't like. I think people "leave" (assuming we could prove that for any specific reason, other than inertia, people DO drop out of the forum) simply because they don't find anything that interests them in ANY of the threads.

But I would really like to know HOW MANY people purportedly "leave" because they just couldn't stand the fact that "tonality vs. [something else]" was being discussed, or because people were "arguing about the 'avant-garde'?

Two or three? (I doubt even that many).

Maybe MORE people are here on this forum because of such discussions. How could we determine whether or not that were the case? It’s possible some amount of “verbal conflict” (also known as “discussion,” “dialogue,” or “dialectic”) is beneficial.

 reclassifying music as either head music or heart music still runs into the same problem we have now and even exacerbates its. Classifications imply a set of quality for music to be placed in such categories, however how people emotionally respond  to music is different. As where you might feel that Penderecki's Threnody for Hiroshima or Schoenberg's 5 Pieces for Orchestra are completely head piece, I respond very emotional to these piece. Tonal music also lies in the inbetween of heart and head music. Mozart's Sting Quartet No. 19 in C major or all of the London Symphonies by Haydn are both head and heart music. This is especially true with Haydn as he purposely sought to make intelligent thought provoking music that challenged the London audience's knowledge. 

I also feel that the terms heart and head music create more of a dichotomy than tonal and atonal. It still creates this unrealistic binary of "you are either this or this." The terms atonal and tonal merely describe music that either has a tonal center or is devoid of one. Of course that term can be tricky with new music being either, hence why most theorist prefer now to also include the umbrella term "post-tonal." The crux of my question is, why is there a need for extreme binaries at all? Sure a few composers back then may have sparked the flames with their inflammatory comments towards tonal composers, but why are the flames still be fanned? 

Why does it seem that you can't like both, but must side with one? And why, in some extreme cases, is their such disbelief that someone could possibly like one side or another or both? I know I have been personally accused of lying or have been brain washed about my love for non-tonal music. That it was impossible for me to find real enjoyment out of atonal music and that it is all a front. That shows the extreme this debate has gotten and all this happened on this forum as well as others. 

michael diemer said:

Maybe we should classify music by the effect it has on people. Some music evokes powerful emotional responses. Some music is just pleasant to listen to. Some music is interesting more on an intellectual level.  Maybe we should just stop using the terms "tonal" and "atonal," and talk about "head music" vs "heart" music" vs "ear music." And folk music, film music, top 40, etc. They all have different uses, and it's because they have different effects on the listener. The term "New Music" also doesn't make much sense anymore, since what people mean by it is music that began a hundred years ago. As Kristofer has pointed out, and to paraphrase the incomparable Yogi Berra, "Avant-garde" ain't what it used to be." (My favorite Yogi-ism: "The future ain't what it used to be").

  1. The didnt leave or get suspended simply from discussing the issue, they left or were suspended when the discussion devolved into name calling, accusations and character attacks, and lengthy offensive post about how one is crippling the cause of all musical woes and hardships. At one point it got to where others where making separate threads purely to mock and ridicule those who wrote in a particular style. 
  2. Everyone has the right to discuss anything here, and I will personally never impede on that right. I just merely want to know why we feel that people must choose one. 

No one to my knowledge (and this is only looking at the comments left when people leave or get suspended) left because of a topic being discussed. It was how the discussion was carried out that caused people to leave. And this is true for any discussion (see Met Opera discussion for example). 

This topic, tonal vs atonal, seems to be not just an isolated instance. You can go all over the web and find people not only debating but flat out bickering over this topic. Another composer based forum was so fed up with this debate the permanently banned all discussions that even suggest discussing this dichotomy. I would never want this forum to get that way. So instead of just flatly avoiding the issue like the 800b gorilla in the room, I want to get to the heart of what makes people so passionate about this debate.

Are we really debating the merits of one musical technique over another, or is there something more just below the surface?


Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:

Can I have a bit of clarification or quantification on this issue:

1) How many people have either been suspended, or driven to leave, due to discussions about a supposedly irreconcilable divide between supporters of "tonal" and "pantonal" (sometimes called "atonal") music?

2) Isn't it obvious that people who want to discuss such issues can, on certain specified threads, and people who wish to discuss something else (topic X), can do so, and ignore discussions they don't like; and isn't it also obvious that people who wish to have variety may visit any number of threads, as they see fit?

My theory would be that people "leave," or drop out, not because they see conversation threads or posted remarks they don't like. I think people "leave" (assuming we could prove that for any specific reason, other than inertia, people DO drop out of the forum) simply because they don't find anything that interests them in ANY of the threads.

But I would really like to know HOW MANY people purportedly "leave" because they just couldn't stand the fact that "tonality vs. [something else]" was being discussed, or because people were "arguing about the 'avant-garde'?

Two or three? (I doubt even that many).

Maybe MORE people are here on this forum because of such discussions. How could we determine whether or not that were the case? It’s possible some amount of “verbal conflict” (also known as “discussion,” “dialogue,” or “dialectic”) is beneficial.

-------

You ask "why?"  Why is this an argument?

 

One answer might be:

 

There are real differences of opinion between those who think the contributions of Stockhausen and Varese to modern music might be considerably greater than the contributions of John Adams and Phillip Glass, for instance.

 

Such differences of opinion are genuine, and based on the fact that different composers are operating from lines of reasoning, based on a host of different philosophical, aesthetic, epistemological, and metaphysical premises.  Differences regarding social, political and economic outlooks may also play an important role.  People have different attitudes towards “culture,” in its various manifestations.  (So these arguments would occur, whether we were talking about the visual arts or fiction or poetry, or even history and psychology, not to mention physics:  think of the debates between Einstein and Bohr—the latter was ‘avant-garde’ and former was ‘traditional’ in the debate over the nature of sub-atomic events.  You can see similar divides in any discipline or human endeavor).

 

There is no reason why these differences cannot be discussed, debated, or simply revisited periodically, in a civilized and courteous way, however.  (I think that is the real concern).  But as long as people have different premises-- regarding aesthetical philosophy, economics, politics and “popular” and “elite” culture—such conflicts will erupt from time to time, and are inevitable.  These discussions might “go away” only when the full and complete truth is known about every aspect of knowledge that human (and divine) beings can fathom.

...It still creates this unrealistic binary of "you are either this or this."

But I don't think that binary is really all that unrealistic, human nature being what it appears to be. I get what you're saying, but I think most people ARE "either this or this". Or, probably more accurately, almost always (at least) simply "MORE of this than that". The crux of your question I can't personally answer any better than that, in addition to the way I feebly attempted to answer before: That (tied in with all this, somehow, is the fact that) we're all social, emotional animals, with a predisposition to clannishness.

Not very helpful, I know.

Socrates Arvanitakis, way, way back on Sunday, said,

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

That's about the most sensible thing one can say on this subject.

Hello Tyler, I think at the heart of it is that some people have lots of time on their hands. I don't have very much spare time, so try to come here to post my works, offer what I hope is useful commentary on works which I have at least some appreciation for, and otherwise contribute meaningfully to the site. Some who post on this site seem to have an infinite amount of time (based on the novel-length of their postings or their ability to debate infinitely over any issue).

Tyler Hughes said:

I want to get to the heart of what makes people so passionate about this debate.

Are we really debating the merits of one musical technique over another, or is there something more just below the surface?

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