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.

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum


  • Hello Fredrick,

    Thanks for your reply. You said, “The latest installment by Ondib the Prolix reads like it could have been written by our old friend Saul.” Sorry, I don’t know who “Saul” is. I thought you wanted to keep the conversation focused and “on topic,” as you have said so many times. Perhaps you can explain who “Saul” is, or was, and explain why he might be relevant. … Your several attempts to poison the well by name-calling continue to be of little interest, and require some justification from your side, if you really want to continue doing that. (Aren’t there at least three distinct ad hominem attacks in your last post alone?) You might want at least to answer, when I call you on that. I am suggesting that you merely designate a piece of writing arcane or difficult because you may feel inadequate when you encounter people who write in a style more advanced than that of the average high school student. If that is not true, you can attempt to explain why you sometimes prefer name-calling to simply reasoning out your position. [I ran your last post through a readability scan, and it came out at a 9.9 grade level. If your writing skill tends generally to be near or below that of a 10th grade student, then it is no wonder you consider writing beyond that level to be “prolix.”]

    Perhaps it’s best if we dispense with the ad hominem arguments, and confine ourselves primarily to the logic of our positions. If one calls a person “prolix” and that person replies (with or without justification) by characterizing his opponent’s thinking as “adolescent” the conversation becomes merely personal.

    I noticed, Fredrick, you did not attempt to address the contradiction in your reasoning on this question of attention to detail; that is, how can you insist on following the rules of a symbolic system, when you do not do so yourself?

    You said, “Onion masquerades as fact …”

    I quote you exactly. Why “onion” masquerades as fact, you don’t say, and I can only conclude that this was an error on your part. I think I know what you wanted to say, but how can I be sure? Isn’t using the right word in written communication just as important as using the right accidental when writing out a score? If you don’t do the former, what reason is there to expect that your admonitions regarding the latter should be taken seriously? (Please answer this, or at least modify your your position slightly).

    As for your imperative demands, to the effect that “citations are required,” would it not be more polite to ask for scholarly citations? I ask you in future to make requests rather than to issue commands in these conversations. In any case, do you think I am less justified in giving my opinion on any issue discussed here, with or without a specific citation, than you or anyone else? However you may wish to answer that, I will compliment you, because it was YOU in fact who cited the example of “Silver Apples of the Moon” in the context of this discussion about notating. I merely relied on your “citation,” saying that Subotnik’s work, and the changing facts on the ground (the approach towards a point where all students of composition will have sophisticated composer software, etc.) make the use of traditional notation unnecessary. So you have the citation you wanted for my assertion, provided by you yourself, just interpreted differently to make the point I wished to make. You didn’t comment upon that point yet, however. (I don’t know what you were trying to prove by bringing up Subotnik in the first place, since the example of his music seems to prove more effectively that the older notational systems are doomed to destruction than your assertion that they must abide).

    If you really need more citations, examples of modern composers, from 1960 onwards, who often wrote, published, recorded and had music performed without the traditional score, I cite: Pierre Henry, Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur, Maurice Kagel, Bruno Maderna, Giacinto Scelsi, Pierre Schaeffer, Bernard Parmegiani, Edgard Varèse, Nancarrow, Luc Ferrari, … Do you really want me to provide quotations from all these composers on the issue of the score? I’ll stop here, lest I be accused once again of being “prolix” or offering too many lists, being “too scholarly,” or providing “too much information.” (When I don’t present it, I am accused of being “uninformed,” and when I do, I am accused of writing massive tomes. [In fact, you accused me of engaging in “uninformed speculation” … see quote below.] So, it’s hard to know what you want. )

    Here is Pierre Henry’s “Après la mort,” for an example you can listen to, which illustrates the fact that new systems of notation are required. (And this implies by extension the need for a larger system, based on information technology, which would widely encompass all musical compositions).

    You said, “Without substantiation the statements can only be seen as speculation and given the context, they seems like uninformed speculation.”

    I don’t think “they seems like” that at all … (Come on, you have to admit it’s funny that you keep insisting on accuracy and adherence to the strict rules of a symbolic system when you make such errors as “they seems like uninformed speculation,” and “Onion masquerades as fact …” )

    The statements won’t seem like uninformed speculation, if you inform yourself. After listening to the above composers I mentioned, and seeing how they notated their music, you may better appreciate the argument. I would ask, in turn, are you able to substantiate the statement you are making? (Can you substantiate your claim that my arguments “CAN ONLY” be seen as speculation?) Perhaps there are several ways to view my statements, and not ONLY one. Yours is merely a dogmatic assertion in this context, and a very misguided one at that. If you disagree with me, why not engage in your own speculation or try to offer arguments and evidence to show how your position can be sustained?

    You say, “Sacrosanct? I am talking about the requirement to accurately indicate by whatever means, the composer’s intentions.” and then, “ . . . I have no idea what you are talking about.”

    I think that word “accurate” may end up giving you a bit of trouble. Why didn’t you just say at the beginning that you had “no idea what” I was talking about? And why not then ask specific questions, so the argument being made can be better comprehended? The most substantial points you made were the following, which seem to indicate that you do not yet understand what I am suggesting about notation, about scores, about composing, or about performance (and not just about the issue of the supposed sanctity of the traditional system of notating). These issues will all end up dovetailing in any case.

    You did say, regarding traditional notation, “It is practical… as evidenced by two distinct advantages: 1) information density. Very much data is conveyed to performers with enormous efficiency 2) in the west this notation is universally understood and will probably continue to be so as long as traditional western instruments are in existence.”

    You may as well say 1) the ceremony of the Eucharist (Catholic “Holy Communion,” premised on the notion that the wafer is literally the “body of Christ”) conveys a great deal of data to traditional churchgoers. And you might as well affirm, as an article of faith, that 2) the ritual will exist in that form as long as benches in sectarian churches are made of wood.

    Can you demonstrate that your point (1), about “information density,” is true? Do you have an “authority” you can cite on that? (If you are to be consistent, then you cannot call upon me to produce citations from experts unless you do so). And even if you could quote an authority, would you be able to prove that the authority is correct? Please attempt to do that. Why does “traditional notation” have more of an advantage in the area of “information density” than any computerized form of information display? You assert this without proof. On the face of it, it would seem obvious that any computer display, or set of interfaces would be superior in many ways to a traditional score. I don’t think I have to demonstrate that even a simple midi has greater “information density” than a score, do I? Never mind more complex music files.

    Try a brief exercise. Consider it a thought experiment. Can you compare the opening chords of Beethoven’s Third with the opening chords of Luc Ferrari’s Visage V, with reference to traditional notation on staff paper?

    For the opening chords of the latter, you can listen here:

    Luc Ferrari - Visage V

    (Thanks to Trilobite Juice, for posting the above piece on youtube. That’s quite an amazing work, which I only heard for the first time very recently—today, in fact).

    Your point (2) also seems to be an assertion, but it is a very interesting one, which relates to the notion of the “fool’s paradise,” or any kind of “unchanging realm” you might like to embrace or advocate. You appear to assume that the current system of musical notation on staff paper will survive “as long as traditional western instruments are in existence.”

    What about a universal system? If there is a universal system that can represent musical sounds made not only by “traditional instruments,” but by all instruments that play music, and by all synthesizers and all computerized means of producing music—why would that new system not supersede traditional notation?

    Many examples of the death of symbolic systems can be mentioned to illustrate the point under discussion. The Phoenician alphabet, the very first alphabet, in fact, has died. The Roman numeral system (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X) was replaced by the current system (1, 2, 3 …) due to the superiority of the latter for use in mathematical operations. In the area of music notation … are you familiar with the system of representation used by the ancient Greeks?

    You and read about it here, if you like:

    It was obviously a very complex and sophisticated system. It is now defunct, however. Systems come and go, and the belief that the current notational system will not eventually (and perhaps in short order) disappear, does not seem to accord with patterns of historical development. “The Garden of Eden” and “Earthly Paradise” are unchanging realms. They both belong to just one category of “fools’ paradises,” which you appear to subscribe to. All things in material life are born, live, and die, and that includes symbolic systems as well. The traditional notational system was born, has existed up to the present day, and will expire—it’s only a matter of time. If you don’t believe that, then you would appear to believe in the eternity of human social arrangements and to disbelieve in social evolution or social change of any kind.

    I had used the phrase, “ … where orchestral synthesis, electronic music and sound sculpture (and countless other methods of producing music using the computer) have rendered the performer unnecessary, both logically and practically … ”

    You replied, “The above can only have been written by someone afflicted with such defective hearing that he cannot distinguish between very sophisticated electronic reproductions of live performances and the live performance itself. …”

    (Another personal attack, rather than a substantive logical argument?) The conclusion does not follow from any relevant premise, nor is it clear that the conclusion itself is relevant to the discussion, even if it were true. First, I made it clear that I was talking mainly about the fact that a good recording of synthesized sound and a good recording of a live performance PLAYED THROUGH SPEAKERS were not distinguishable by most people. You took the remark out of context. Even if you were right in asserting that they are always distinguishable, it would not empower you to logically conclude that a person who wrote such a remark had hearing that was to any degree defective. [Mine is not defective, by the way; though I know musicians who do have damaged auditory faculties, and I wonder if you would want to shame them]. Would you castigate Beethoven for his loss of hearing, as Louis Spohr did in one of his worst moments? The remark seems insensitive to those who actually ARE aurally impaired.

    You also appear to ignore a fairly obvious fact: the difference between synthesized musical sounds and live musical sounds (as perceived by the human ear) will eventually disappear, if the most sophisticated equipment on earth has not made that happen already. I am sure there are real sounds and synthetic musical sounds, which, if produced in an auditorium behind a curtain, a person with the best ability to hear could not distinguish. Do really you doubt that? Do you genuinely think technology is subject to such theoretical, or even real world limitations, in the long run? You may as well be in the position of one who champions the art of striking the stick against the stone as a form of music against the inventor of the piano.

    {Incidentally, you keep getting this point wrong: I am not “against notation.” I am FOR the more advanced, more complete, more useful, more “accurate” (to use the word you like) and more complex forms of representing and manipulating sound that the computer has to offer, which includes “traditional notation” (the poor man’s system), and all the other methods under development and in use which already supersede staff paper. Please try to see that, so you will not mischaracterize my position. You appear to be in favor of standing still, or in favor of going backwards.}

    [On one final point: I notice you wanted to personalize the issue, and direct the conversation towards a specific discussion of my music towards the end. That’s a different discussion, of course. I am sure two people can get into an argument like this: Your music is the way it is because you have such and such a view of the score, and such and such a view of composer software; followed by the reply, NO, YOUR MUSIC has such and such qualities because YOU have THIS view of the score, and THAT view of composer software! Then, if it is possible, the conversation degenerates further, with a succession of ad hominem fallacies, non-sequiturs and red herrings. It’s best to avoid such arguments, which are not even valid by the lowest standards of logic.]

  • Bob Porter said,

    “That our present form of notation may mutate into something different is not the issue here.”

    I agree. The issue is not that it MAY mutate. The issue is that it HAS been mutating, it IS mutating now, and that it will soon be obsolete. I just did a check online, and you should see what the young people have to say. Many of them are composing away, saying how easy it is to write music now without having to bother with standard notation, having to “write Italian words,” and manage a lot of useless symbols. The only people defending notation seem to be older generation.

    “The OP dealt with a question about rules for standard notation as it exists now.”

    “Now,” meaning when he started the thread? “Now” as in “today,” or some other kind of “now?” In some Latin languages they have two words for now: In Spanish they say “Ya” for “now” in this instant; and they say “Ahora,” which means “now, or more or less around now, but it could be a little later.”

    I think when this thread started what you are saying about standard notation may have been true, but now (on Thursday, at 9:00 pm, or so, West African Standard Time), it’s perhaps no longer true. The more time passes, the less true it becomes.

    “That newer types of musical performances will require different, or no, notation, is understood.”

    Yes, I agree. And yet from this point onwards, everything can be considered “new,” while everything written before, will be encompassed by the advancing computerized systems of notation. So there is no real reason to use the old systems anymore, to hang on to them, or to suggest others should do so. In spite of what others may say, you and I have probably spent too much time writing on staff paper as it is. It was a nasty habit then, like smoking, and it’s important to give it up, for one’s general health, so one will actually have more time to compose. Some people may be so addicted to it, though, that they cannot give it up.

    “That live music and the present form of notation will disappear may or may not happen.”

    Well, from a purely naturalist point of view, and from the perspective of quantum mechanics, you are right. Any single subatomic particle can simply appear and disappear virtually without reason, cause or explanation—and while that is less likely to happen with an atom, and less likely still to happen with an entire molecule or group of molecules, it CAN happen. There is no logical reason why all musical scores cannot all disappear and then all reappear afterwards, though the statistical odds against that happening are astronomical.

    “Although, as evidenced by the cantina band in Star Wars, live music has been around for a very long time :)”

    YES. : ) … That was true, “a long time ago, in galaxy far, far away.”

    But wait! … citizens of that Empire may all be dead by now, and everyone may have been dead for millions of years in that galaxy. So we don’t have definite knowledge about how long “live music” existed in that galaxy or the mulitiverse, as a whole. In fact, for all we know, those musicians in the Cantina may have been the only live musicians in the entire universe at that time, and they might have been killed by Java the Hub right after that performance. There is just so much we don’t know.

    “One other observation on something you posted.”


    “As I type this, across the table from me, my high school daughter is doing AP art history homework.”

    That’s good. We have to make sure our foster daughter does her homework on time, so I sympathize.

    “She is writing, by hand, copious study notes on a worksheet.”

    Well, yes, I understand what you mean. That’s true. I suppose I should have been more specific. I should have said, “Cursive is dying out,” rather than “handwriting.” People still write out notes, and shopping lists, using “handwriting,” although even that is increasingly being displaced by texting, and text reminders (which can serve for notes) on the so-called “smart phones.” When it comes to writing papers, in college and in high school, the evidence appears to show that almost no one in the US writes papers or anything of substance now using anything but computerized text.

    “I have worked for two different school districts, in two different states, for the last ten tears. Students handwrite classwork, and teachers write on the board, everyday.”

    But that is dying out, and is no longer necessary, with computers, texting devices, smart phones, tablets, etc. etc. It’s only a matter of time.

    “Document cameras and Smart Boards are used every day also. Handwriting is still taught, and is necessary.”

    Well, what’s the purpose of a “Smart Board?” One purpose is to turn cursive handwriting (for those who still use it) into readable typed text. This is part of the process that is making cursive disappear. I don’t think people use Smart Boards to turn ordinary computerized typed text in cursive.

    “My own bit of off topic and unsolicited opinion is that the current trend to put an iPad in the hands of every student is a mistake.”

    You and I may agree that is seems like a bad idea. Some people even say that it was a bad idea for our arboreal prehumen ancestors to come down out of the trees to live on the ground. And they might be right too. But it seems almost to have been inevitable.

    I am listening to a BBC report on the next generation of talking computers even now … (Cortana, which is evolving beyond the older generation “Siri,” who calculates and reports local weather and advises you about the clothes you should wear). I don’t see how people will live without these talking telephone/computers/tablets/ in the future. They will probably be embedded into our brains in the not to distant future (thankfully, along with our composer software).

    “Sounds like a good idea, but in practice, is often a disaster. Given the opportunity, a number of students use them to play games (even in class) rather than study.”

    Yes, I understand. I think we are even beyond that point, where games and homework and study have become almost indistinguishable in the minds of students.

    “Not all students do this, but the ones who do are exactly the ones who should be studying.” True, but what can we do?

    “This is not speculation, or something someone told me. I have seen it. Sure, you can set up iPads to have limited functions. They can be made to not load new software. The network can be set up to block certain websites.”

    I don’t doubt you. I have seen the same things, and worse. Of course, you would be surprised how easily students can get around these blocks and other methods to restrict their access to computers and the internet.

    I would say more, but it might have already been said in the future a few years ago. There is a way all these problems can be addressed, were being addressed, and will be addressed -- which we have talked about, are talking about, and will be talking about later, perhaps.

  • "Unequivocal ambiguity is the hallmark of flexible bias."

    I became . . . I don't know . . . I can't say. So I deleted my last post on the ambiguity issue. But I 'm not sure I should have done that.

  • To look to the future, examine the past.  Music writing as we know it began around 1200 AD. We don't know whatGreek music sounded like-only the emotions it invoked.  Writing began with a single line representing Middle C or whatever pitch worked.  What we call ledger lines were added until we had the Great Staff-11 lines.  These were divided by various clefs into 5 line staffs.  The current note notion started around 1200 gradually adding more ways for the composer to denote performance.

    Writing music by hand or computer, using all signs, best gets a composer's idea performed.  Multiple interpretations of the same piece still closely follow the Composer's intention.

    You may have fantastic music in your mind, but you need the "tools" to have it performed!

  • I've never heard on anyone saying don't use naturals in atonal music. On the contrary, there are composers that say put an accidental in front of every not (except those immediately repeated). You can see this in scores by Boulez and (IIRC) Lutoslawski. I don't follow that theory, but I am liberal with my use of cautionary naturals. Better to be safe than sorry.

    Concerning quartertones, most music notation programs have an array of common quartertone symbols available. I use equal-tempered quartertones, and I have had no problems conveying them easily to the performers. I know other composers who use 6th and 8th tones with easily found symbols. Btw, I use naturals to cancel those, too.

  • Interesting. I use the same methodology in atonal music and that using floating tonality.

This reply was deleted.