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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 had a nice long reply written out before I accidentally deleted it...!*%$

Music just is.

There is good and bad, both traditional and contemporary.  What is "good or bad" is certainly in the eye of the beholder.  The key for me is that music is constantly evolving and mutating, incorporating the best of both camps.

I've always found all types of music interesting, I find Stockhausen strangely compelling (another debate - is it music or a soundscape?).  If I enjoy something I'll investigate further, if not I don't.  The above debate, for me, is superfluous and doesn't matter (to me at least).  Composers will write music to their desire, regardless of their beliefs - some will be good, some bad and some average.  There's no right or wrong, just music.

That's enough of my incoherent ramblings for now! 

“For instance, a work is presented as vanguard, with the implicit idea that, by that designation alone, it is exempt from an expectation of a subject, motivic developement, cohesive structure, a dramatic arch, etc.”

Can a piece of music NOT have all of the things you mention, or at least not have some of them, such as

“a subject, motivic development, a dramatic arch…”

Might it have no theme (no subject), but instead, “theme dispersal” (something not readily identifiable to the ear as a theme, but a pattern dispersed over the course of a piece)?

Can it not have “motivic” development, but instead, have rhythmic development,

Can it have overtone development (as Spectralists imagine it), without the development of motives?

Can it have timbre development, without motivic development?

Can it have durational development (with regard to individual notes), without having motivic development?

Can it not have a “dramatic arch,” but instead, have dramatic motions, which do not resemble an “arch” in any way?

Can the “cohesive structure” be defined in ways which are not readily apprehended in the first instance, by the new listener, as “cohesive?”

(Messiaen, Stockhausen, and a great many others, have answered, yes, to most of these questions).

I ask these questions, because I think you may be confusing not having “traditional organizational principles” with not having ANY organizing principles. What if the principles you mention are simply absent, but replaced by different principles, which you simply do not recognize, at first?

“The problem is, many modern composers seek to insulate their music from the critical standards applied to conventional’ music, by ascribing to it some transcendental quality or classification”

What if the work really DOES have an alternative classification, or it lies outside the “conventions,” or it has some set of different alternate characteristics, or a “transcendent quality,” and some listeners hear, or experience it in some way, and others do not? Maybe they are seeking to create something new, in some new way, and others simply THINK they are trying to “avoid classification,” or insulate themselves.

“They are most offended by an insinuation that it is indeed not music.”

What if, like John Cage, or Giancinto Scelsi, they say right off what they are creating is NOT music, and yet people continue to think that what they are doing is making music?

“You can't have it both ways; if you're going to call it music, it will ultimately be judged as such.”

What if something both is, and is NOT music; in the sense of a paradox, in that a thing is what it is not? Isn’t the nature of sound (or what detractors sometimes call noise) such that whenever something exists in a shady borderline between “music” and “sound,” both of the words are redefined in relation to the particular instantiation of either one. Can’t sound and music be mixed together (or noise and music, or sound and noise and music, all at once)?

“So yes, the best solution to this controversy is seemingly to quit making it a controversy.”

But isn’t that a controversial statement, in and of itself, which makes for a continuation of controversy?

As long as people THINK, and speak, controversy is bound to arise.

As long as people THINK and speak about music, controversies about music will arise.

I don’t see why that is a problem, or why it needs to be avoided.

The “Why” of the question (why is there an argument about “this”), seems to indicate a disapproval of arguing, of discussion, or dialogue, or discursive thinking, or dialectic. Is there “disapproval,” and if so, why is there disapproval?


i keep hearing (pun intended, lol) about the tonal vs atonal debate... like the OP said.


I know some classical pieces excite me... they have parts inordinately delicate and beautiful... and other parts that are frantic and scary sounding... and by god, they go from beautiful to scary, quiet to loud... and they TAKE you somewhere, they GET you somewhere, along a journey of some kind...

THATS what i like.

Beethoven for instance, lol.


Schoenberg?? i went and found the first "schoenberg" performance i found... this link...;_ylt=A0LEVvy.W0hV_BoAZMQn...

i listened to it... i dont even know if its "tonal" or "atonal"...

all i know is? its sort of "flat"... sort of "cardboard". To my (completely UNprofessional and amateur) ears?? sounds like a piece is being played slightly "out of tune"... I hear tempo being used for effect, but... not much more.

kinda like drinking "flat" soda pop.... the image i get in my minds eye? an old, old black and white "silent movie", and this is the music to it. I feel... *bored*

when i listen to famous (tonal) pieces? emotions get stirred... i feel beauty, scary, lots of things... here? i felt... not much of anything.

(maybe this is an atonal piece? i dont really know)


last time i heard this debate? several years back? i found some classical piece reviewed online? the reviewer said, and i quote:

"Oh lord, JUST what the world needed... yet one MORE boring tonal work...blah blah" and proceeded to poo poo it to great length. To my ear? the poo pooing had an air of "well practiced insouciance", like a snotty waiter in a nice restaurant.

I had LIKED the piece he poo pooed... so? i went and looked up HIS name? I couldnt find a single piece of music anywhere HE had written.

we are all critics... we know what we like. why ask why? it just "is".

IMNSHO, "atonality" is a misnomer, since it still involves tones, albeit chromatic and supposedly without the theoretical ideal of a "tonal center" (whatever that is). True atonality IMO should be completely liberated from the boredom of tones completely, and be composed entirely of glissandos (of which the boring old tone is but a special case -- a glissando that begins and ends on the same note). Sure, this would exclude many of our current instruments, which are constructed precisely for the purpose of producing tones, you see. But there's hope in instruments such as the strings, which are not confined by artificially-designed frets or other such tonal constraints that would limit them to mere tones. The string orchestra would be quite capable of playing a truly atonal piece, that is, one completely free of tones and comprised of glissandos instead.

And lest one thinks that this is just an empty mental exercise, allow me to point to the human voice as an example. Imagine listening to a speech, for instance, but ignoring the consonants and vowels and the words they comprise, but listen to the variations of pitch on every syllable, every word, phrase, or sentence. The pitch contour almost never consists of flat tones of fixed pitch. They are almost always glissandos of some kind. This is especially pronounced in certain foreign languages such as Russian or Chinese. (In the latter, this pitch contour, or for us musicians, glissandos, can actually distinguish between different words of identical consonants and vowels, which serves to show how expressive they can be.)

Furthermore, if you listen to the same speech by different speakers, you will note not only differences in the relative pitches of the glissandos, so to speak, but also a non-fixed "tonal center", if one may call it that, between one speaker to the next. Meaning to say, in the analogous situation of musical instruments, it doesn't matter whether said instruments are playing the glissandos a 5th apart, or a 3rd apart, or any other interval; it's the relative shape of the pitch contour that determines the identity of the "melody". That is to say, music consisting entirely of glissandos can be truly without any tonal center, since any instrument can come in and play the same contour at any arbitrary interval apart, and it would still "harmonize" the same way a large group of people reading the same text still sounds coherent in spite of the fact that probably none of them are speaking in unison (in the sense of pronouncing words at exactly the same pitch).

I submit that this is the true atonality, not that half-hearted no-tonal-center-yet-still-has-tones "atonality" that has been pandered around these past few decades.


I just listen to music. If it sounds good, I keep listening. If it doesn't sound good, I stop or continue listening until starts to sound good. If it never sounds good, I definitely stop listening. 

Hello Bobby ( Bobby Popolla ).


You said:


"I just listen to music. If it sounds good, I keep listening. If it doesn't sound good, I stop or continue listening until [it] starts to sound good ..."


Please explain.


Why not say to yourself, "if the music 'sounds bad,' I will keep listening?"  


I don't understand this attitude in the mind of a composer.  Why not say, "If it doesn't sound good, I will continue listening until it starts to sound good?'


What's the purpose of following the habits of mind, in reacting to pre-conceived notions of "good" and "bad?"


Why not listen to the music "as it is" without judging whether it is "good" or "bad?"


Hello Ondib,

I did say that. If you go back and re-read what I wrote. I'll post it here.

"If it doesn't sound good, I stop or continue listening until it starts to sound good."

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