Suggested Learning Resources


2) Video Lesson: 

3) Online Reading: Non-Serial Atonality, Dr. Barbara Murphy

4) Interactive Lesson: 

Music Theory QuickThink:

-          The descriptor "atonal" refers to melodic and harmonic organization of musical materials that resides outside of the major/minor system.

-          There are a number of organizational systems falling under the category of "atonal" music, including the twelve-tone system, serialism, free tonality, and polytonality to name a few.

-          The essential characteristic of atonal music is that it does not exhibit the hierarchy of pitches as found in tonal music: there is no requirement of tonic-dominant relationship, nor leading tone resolution.

-          Because the term "atonal" may refer one of several systems for organizing pitch, it is best to look at some specific examples of the sub-genres to begin to grasp the broader category of atonal music.

-          Sometimes the term post-tonal is used, and might be more precise, because this indicates the musical systems that arose after the common-practice period (ca. 1600 - 1875).

-          In general, atonal music refers to music in which there is no specific hierarchy of organization causing our perception to resolve on the tonic, or "do."

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-          A focal pitch is a note that is perceived by the listener as being somehow more prominent than the other pitches in the musical texture. This focus on a pitch can be created by the composer in a number of ways, for example: a note that is repeated overly proportional to other notes in a passage can be a focal pitch.

-          A focal pitch can be established by the composer though use of of register -- for example, the highest or lowest pitch in a musical texture, when emphasized in supporting manners such as extreme repetition, prominent dynamics, or even instrumentation.

-          The essential characteristic of a focal pitch is that it is somehow emphasized in a way that draws the listener's attention.

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-          A pitch class refers to a pitch label ignoring specific register.  In regards to pitch-class, C4 is the same as C5.  (NOTE: When we soon introduce integer notation, we will also ignore enharmonic spellings of the same pitch.  Through integer notation, C# and Db will be part of the same pitch class.)

-          In music a "set" is a specific collection of pitches, defined by the composer, as source material for melodic and harmonic content in a composition.

-          "Elements" are the individual items inside a set -- generally pitches. For example, a whole tone scale might be the set {C, D, E, F#, G#, A#}. This set has six elements.

-          A subset is a collection of pitches belonging to a larger set which is under consideration.

-          For example, {C, D, E} is a subset of the whole-tone scale {C, D, E, F#, G#, A#}.

-          Because the group {C, D, E} can also be a set in it's own right, it is worth noting that the benefit of defining one pitch collection as being a 'subset' of a larger collection occurs when a piece of music contains important building blocks of both the set and the subset.

-          Often a composer will work for a set, and created motives (harmonic and melodic) derived from multiple subsets.

Objective 46.1: Examples in Music: YouTube

Objective 46.1: Define atonal music, focal pitches, pitch class, set, elements, and subset