3 Atonal Techniques for Adventurous Songwriters

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As the 19th century slipped into the 20th and the last of the great Romantic composers, Gustav Mahler, died in 1911, classical music, at least according to Arnold Schoenberg, faced a crisis. Schoenberg argued that the possibilities of traditional music theory and compositional technique had been all but expended, and that like what Albert Einstein was doing with his Theory of General Relativity around the same time, composers needed to rethink and rewrite new fundamental rules to take their place. Schoenberg decided to do away with one of the very ideas that had governed Western concert music since the time of Bach: tonality.

Previously, music could be analyzed by comparing the relationships of each note to some fundamental pitch, known as the tonic. Schoenberg argued instead that notes should simply be notes, given equal value, analyzed individually, rather than by their relationship to some fundamental.

Schoenberg and his followers became known as the Second Viennese School, and their music was given the brand “atonal.” These revolutionary composers now faced a dilemma, however: Having discarded the fundamental organizational principle of music, what would they replace it with? The composers developed a series of techniques, both to ensure that they would not slip back into tonality and to give some amount of structure to their new notationally-wayfaring compositions.

And these techniques can actually help us “modern” songwriters out in a few wonderful ways!

Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstüke, Op.11 (1909)

Musicians today, it could be argued, face some of the same challenges that the Second Viennese School did. In essence, we’re all just looking for ways to make music that pushes the boundaries while also sounding pretty cool. Some forms of electronic music, like house techno, are well-known to have no harmonic information whatsoever, while others, like trap rap and IDM, may eschew tonalities, or at least identifiable tonal centers, pretty smartly, as well!

But if you’re just looking for some new compositional language to bring into your music to make it sound unpredictable, or to shake up your creative habits, here are some pretty easy, useful techniques that you can use to de-tonalize your music just like the Viennese!

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Derived Rows

Though the name may sound daunting, this strategy for melodic variety is pretty  straightforward. Given a set of notes (in atonal lingo, a “tone row”), you can reorder them according to certain patterns to produce a new set. Here’s Anton Webern’s serialist set of notes that uses all twelve available pitches without repeats until the row fully completes, taken from his Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 (1934).

The twelve-tone technique is an extreme way to compose atonally. It requires the composer to use all of the twelve available pitches (in whatever order or octave) equally, so no one note is emphasized more than the others — because that might accidentally reference a certain tonality. It’s a form of serialismwhich in essence just means composing by means of series (of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements).

Thinking about grouping various musical elements of your song together and transforming them organizationally or mathematically is a great way to get you thinking atonally about your music! There are three basic kinds of transformations of tone rows.


When inverting a set, you keep every interval in a melody the same, but change its direction. So, for example, if your melody starts with an ascending major third, followed by a descending perfect fifth, the inverted melody would start with a descending major third, followed by an ascending perfect fifth.


To create a retrograde set, you reverse the order of notes being played. It’s as if you were reading the music from right to left rather than from left to right. So, if your original melody is A-B-C-A, its retrograde form will be A-C-B-A.

Retrograde Inversion

A retrograde inversion is simply when both of the above transformations are applied to the same set of notes. Not only is the order of the notes reversed, but whether the intervals are ascending or descending is also reversed. This transformation is the furthest from the original set. And while the listener may intuit the connection between a melody and its inversion or its retrograde, it is unlikely that they would recognize a retrograde inversion, or a comfortable tonic, or home base.

Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto (1925)

Melody-Informed Harmonies

If you’re bored with using the same old triads and chord inversions, and adding sevenths just isn’t providing the results you’re after, try generating all new chords straight from the note in the top-line melody (be it a vocal or instrumental lead). To do this, simply isolate a group of notes from your melody and use it as your chord. So if your melody goes G-C-D-E-F-A, you could derive the chords with notes G, C, and D, and E, F, and A and use those underneath your melody.

Focus on Timbre

While Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School thought that melody and harmony needed to be reconstructed as a new system, they also felt that other musical “variables,” such as rhythm and timbre (the unique sounds of each instrument), were under-utilized as means of expression. Rather than simply altering pitches and harmony, composers began to emphasize using unique combinations of instruments, or instructing performers to use extended techniques to create bizarre sounds.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Partita Per Harpsichord (1971)

Modern musicians have a serious advantage over the classical composers of a century ago: Not only do we have access to a plethora of instruments from many different cultures (Schoenberg never used a didgeridoo or a sitar), we also have nearly endless capabilities for modifying sounds in the digital or synthesized space.

Whether it’s running an actual instrument through a series of effects, or using synthesis to create new sonic parameters and shapes, or building your own instruments with household objects, you can use timbre and microtonal waveforms in ways the Viennese could never have dreamed of.

Though their music can be hard to take in on first listen, the philosophies, the innovation, and the influence of the Second Viennese School cannot be overstated. Use their techniques to create new modern music that provokes thought and pushes listeners past their boundaries!

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