Atonality explained in 7 minutes


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Hi everyone. You often hear the term "atonal" used to describe anything that is difficult, discordant, or otherwise musically painful. I think it's unfortunate that this term was ever brought into use in the first place... because it's pretty close to meaningless. Perhaps not surprisingly, this vague term is often used in quite vague ways. So in this short video I'm going to attempt to explain what the term "atonal" is actually meant to describe. Taken literally, the word "atonal" means having no tones, which on the face of it is an absurd definition. But this is in fact a valid description of certain types of music, where unpitched sounds... are used as compositional materials. For instance, much of the first part of Helmut Lachenmann's... 1989 2nd string quartet requires the performers to bow directly on the bridge, on the tailpiece... or on the side of their instruments without producing a definite pitch. [Fragment of Lachenmann's 2nd String Quartet] An earlier example would be Edgard Varèse's 1931 "Ionisation", which is the first composition... written exclusively for percussion instruments, although there are some pitched sounds.