Atonal music and naturals

So I have always composed my atonal music using natural signs after having showed a sharp of flat, recently I showed someone one of these compositions and they told me that I should not use them when composing atonal music because it is presumed that the notes are naturals when not shown with a sharp or flat. I have also heard people say the you shouldn't do it because it bring around the idea that they are "accidentals" which is contradictory to the idea of atonality in which all notes are given equal precedence. 

I'd love to hear what everyone has to say.

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  • I have also heard both. When I write atonal or just chromatic music I air on the side of caution and add natural acsedentals but only if I feel that it is not very obvious. For example: if there is an f-sharp in the pervious measure or in the left hand and not the right then I add it. But if there hasn't been and f in a long time and it's the only one then no I would not add an accidental even if there were other sharp notes around it. But that too changes depending on performances.
  • If accidentals are "contradictory to the idea of atonality" then so is a five line staff. An equivalent of a piano roll would be more appropiate, I'm sure. Well, try giving that to performers instead of a normal score and see how they react. ;)

    I generally use naturals after sharps / flats unless the notes are so far apart that the idea of sharpening the new note is unlikely to occur. If you use bars and both notes are in the same one, a natural is pretty much essential. The reasoning behind this approach is that whatever philosophy involved in your piece, the performer is most likely classicaly trained - they're used to accidentals applying to the whole measure. Heck, sometimes you'll be unlucky enough to establish something that sounds like a particular key to them, and then chances are they'll keep the accidental forever. Even if your performer doesn't go as far, an F following an F# is likely to create confusion. At best, he'll ask you to make sure he got the meaning right. At worst, he will play wrong notes and not even notice (because it's all noise anyway, right?). So, bottom line is, better safe than sorry, I guess.

    Of course many people go with the "no naturals / accidental applies to the particular note ONLY" approach, and successfully so. If you decide to do this, though, I'd suggest stating explicitly, somewhere on the first page of the piece, that this is what you have in mind. Use big letters and Caps Lock, just in case. Should you succeed in hammering the idea into performers' heads, any confusion will hopefully be resolved very quickly. Otherwise, managing the rehearsal may become a pain in the bottom.

  • Thanks guys, you were both really helpful. I think for now I will stick to the "standard practice" method of notating unless I feel for some reason it is incredibly necessary for a piece in the future and I'll write it on the music like you said Greg.

  • The common practice for atonal writing is:

    1) Never use key signatures at the staff beginnings;

    2) Any accidental sign works measure-wise and should be disabled by a natural in the same measure if the note is used as natural in the same measure. This is consistent with old notation traditions;

    3) Repeating the natural sign in the next measure is not required but will not harm, so use it in case of a doubt, possibly in brackets.

  • Agree completely Kristofer, thanks.

  • When writing atonal music, you're generally working without a key signature (there are exceptions, as when atonality appears within a tonal composition). The simple rule is to make the music as logical and easy to read as possible (as has been stated in this thread). You sometimes use naturals, sharps and flats as reminders, especially later on in long phrases, but when doing so, the flat, sharp or natural should appear in brackets.

  • "air" on the side of caution? Unless that was intended as humour (it does create a funny picture), it's "err".

    Tyler Hughes said:

    I have also heard both. When I write atonal or just chromatic music I air on the side of caution and add natural acsedentals but only if I feel that it is not very obvious. For example: if there is an f-sharp in the pervious measure or in the left hand and not the right then I add it. But if there hasn't been and f in a long time and it's the only one then no I would not add an accidental even if there were other sharp notes around it. But that too changes depending on performances.
    Atonal music and naturals
    So I have always composed my atonal music using natural signs after having showed a sharp of flat, recently I showed someone one of these composition…
  • they told me that I should not use them when composing atonal music because it is presumed that the notes are naturals when not shown with a sharp or flat. I have also heard people say the you shouldn't do it because it bring around the idea that they are "accidentals" which is contradictory to the idea of atonality in which all notes are given equal precedence.

    We can't have different rules for atonal music and tonal music. Simple as that. Or should we just write our music following this kind of peculiar "rules" and leave it for the interpreter to find out what kind of music this is? Or label the sheet with something like "atonal notation convention used in this sheet"?

    The notation convention is based on tonal diatonic music in a major key. It works quite well in minor keys, too. And not too bad in modal tonality or free tonality. As some pointed out, the performer might have a classical education and he knows his staves, clefs, key signatures and accidentals. One can argue that the conventional notation doesn't suit atonal music very well, but I'd say it's more important to make it work than to find new notation conventions for atonal music.

    It's a good point that the conventional notation shouldn't lead the performer to believe that there's something tonal in the music, when there isn't. I'd be ready to put a humorous note like "any resemblance with tonal music in the notation is purely coincidental". But I'd still chose the accidentals as if the music were tonal, just to ease reading. If F# occurs twice in a bar, I'd write them as F#, not as F# and Gb. Or F#, G# and A# instead of say Gb, G# and Bb.

    3) Repeating the natural sign in the next measure is not required but will not harm, so use it in case of a doubt, possibly in brackets.

    I haven't seen this in conventional music either. I mean, if there was already a natural sign in the previous bar, I don't know for whom this repeating natural is. For someone who didn't see it, nor heard it in the previous bar?

  • Hello Chris.

    That was a quick response. I was just correcting the final version of this post, when you came in and replied already.

    My final version was this:

    [Just some very small corrections].

    "One can argue that the conventional notation doesn't suit atonal music very well, but I'd say it's more important to make it work than to find new notation conventions for atonal music."

    Given what is being said in the discussion entitled, "Posting Scores," we can posit the fact that conventional notation is dying or nearly dead. For composers who spend most of their time using computer software to compose, that is fast becoming the case.

    The fact that many of us (including myself) were taught conventional notation before the advent of composing software should not make much difference. The new generations coming up will look upon the rules of conventional notation as something of merely historical interest.

    I always thought, even while learning it, that conventional notation was cumbersome and illogical, carrying little valuable information. But it was all we had for preserving music, except for the long playing record and the tape, until the CD and computer came along.

    Now i am thoroughly convinced that the computerized "piano roll" window provides much more useful information, about pitch, velocity (loudness), tonal bends, modulations and many other parameters that are handled through "automation" controls.

    There is really no reason even to use "scores" any more, Performers (insofar as they are still needed to produce sounds), should probably be trained to read the piano rolls and event lists and other tools that give much more specific and useful information. Many performers will be put out of the job as the internet's ability to produce music allows the “Kunstwerk der Zukunft” to move directly from the composer’s mind to the listener's ear. For those who remain more dedicated to performing than to composing, performance will not die out, of course. But it will eventually become more and more of an adjunct to the more creative task of actually composing (Just as "acting" must always be subordinate to the guidelines of the playwright, the director or the producer of the play). I know some will fear that, and try to forestall that, but people on a “composers forum” such as this should begin to seen the inevitability of the demise of the conventional score. Perhaps it will remain as a pleasant relic in our databases.

    The debate about "when to put a natural sign on the staff" will soon be about as arcane and antiquated as any discussion about how to conjugate subjunctive Latin verb tenses. We will essentially be talking about a "dead language."

    I will reply to what you said, Chris, below.

  • There are more reasons to die for conventionally written English than for conventional notation. Take it as a joke, I'm very fond of English and I have no problem with how the written text is miles from the phonetics. But I hope you see the point.

    Ain't it funny how even composers using micro intervals have figured out how to adapt conventional notation to micro intervals.

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