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Atonality in a general sense describes music that departs from the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized the sound of classical European music from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Currently, the term is used primarily to describe compositions written from around 1900 to the present day, in which tonal centers that had been fundamental to most European music since the 1600's were abandoned. The most prominent school of musicians to compose in this manner were the "Second Viennese School" of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. However composers such as Josef Matthias Hauer, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, George Antheil and others wrote music which is described as atonal, and many more traditional composers "flirted with atonality", in the words of Leonard Bernstein.

The Second Viennese School's music, and other music described as "atonal" arose from the "crisis of tonality" which late 19th Century and early 20th Century classical music found itself in. Described by composer Ferruccio Busoni as the exhaustion of the "Major/Minor key system", and by Schoenberg as the "inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others." The first phase is often described as "free atonality" or "free chromaticism" and involved the conscious attempt to avoid patterns which had described musical form before. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg. The second period, begun after the war, was the "method of composing with 12 tones" or 12 tone music, also referred to as dodecophonic (see twelve-tone technique). This period included Berg's Lulu and Lyric Suite, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, his opera Jacob's Ladder and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his final string quartets. Schoenberg was the innovator of the system, but his student Webern then began linking dynamics and tone color to his primary row as well, making the row not only of notes, but other aspects of music as well. This, combined with the parameterization of Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism.

The word "atonality" emerged as a pejorative term to describe and to condemn music in which chordss were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as "Bolshevik" and labeled degenerate music (Entartete Musik), along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime and those who they wished to condemn for political reasons. Many composers, even those who remained in Germany, had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse at the end of World War II.

In the years that followed, atonality represented a challenge to many composers, and even those who did not prefer to write atonal music were influenced by it. The Second Viennese School, and particularly 12 tone composition, was taken by avant-garde composers in the 1950s to be the foundation of "The New Music", and lead to serialism and other forms of musical experimentation. Prominent Post World War II composers in this tradition are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki and Milton Babbitt. Many composers began writing atonal music after the war, even if before they had pursued other styles, including Elliot Carter and Witold Lutoslawski. Famously, Igor Stravinsky, who lived down the street from Schoenberg, began to write exclusively yet serial music after Schoenberg's death (yet using tonal elements). During this time, the chord progressions which distinctly avoided tonal center were explored and named, creating a vocabulary described as musical set theory focusing on pitch classes and pitch sets.

Atonal music continues to be composed, and many atonal composers of the late 20th century are still alive and active. However, the peak of atonality as the cutting edge of classical music began to fade in the 1960s - where, on one hand, aleatoric music and electronic music demanded more and more attention, and on the other, musicians influenced by Easten mysticism, modality, and John Cage began writing music based on ostinato patterns which became Minimalism, after the movement in painting from the same period.

The use of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Schoenberg, who is music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "atonal" meant "without tone" or music. For some it continues to carry negative connotations as a result of its early pejorative use.

It is also pointed out by some that the term "atonal" that has developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Some authors and academics have actively sought to solve these problems by rejecting the use of the word itself and replacing it with alternative terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," and "without tonal center," but these efforts have not gained broad acceptance.

Some ethnomusicologists and composers have asserted that all music is perceived of as having a center, including, at various times Anton von Webern and Robert Fink. Others have argued that the avoidance of a tonal center produces more sophisticated music, which requires greater ability to appreciate, for example Schoenberg in his article on 12 tone composing.

Composing Atonal Music

Setting out to compose atonal music may seem complicated because of both the vagueness and generality of the term. One way to compose atonal pieces, described by George Perle in reference to a pre-twelve tone technique piece by Anton Webern, is to rigourously avoid anything that suggests tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was disallowed is required and what is required is allowed. This is what was done by Charles Seeger in his explanation of dissonant counterpoint, which is a way to write atonal counterpoint. Also: serialism.

See also: Emancipation of Dissonance

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