Emphasizing Atonality In A Twelve Note Sequence - Worksheet 2

In this exercise I composed six examples for solo violin using same twelve pitch sequence as in worksheet 1. (See blog post: Twelve Sumptuous Notes). I wanted to see if I could deliberately reduce the listener's sense tonality or increase the sense of atonality. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica atonality is defined as:

" (The) principle of organizing musical compositions around a central note, the tonic. Generally, any Western or non-Western music periodically returning to a central, or focal, tone exhibits tonality. More specifically, tonality refers to the particular system of relationships between notes, chords, and keys (sets of notes and chords) that dominated most Western music from c. 1650 to c. 1900 and that continues to regulate much music."

For simplicity's sake the six examples are limited to only one rendition of the tone row in its original form. In order to avoid tonal implications as much as possible I used the following strategies: 1) leaping intervals, 2) avoidance of tonal intervals such as fifths and thirds on downbeats, and 3) creating musical shapes to affect tonal implications. I also used a variety of harmonic rhythms, either by repeating notes or changing note durations.

Here again are the original 12 tone in sequence:

In composing the examples I followed the same basic "rules' as in worksheet 1, which are:

1) The twelve notes can appear in any octave register.

2) The twelve notes are always are used in the same order.

3) For simplicities sake, used only the original (prime) form - no usage of inversion or retrograde.

4) I was free to choose any rhythms or duration.

Six New Examples Emphasizing Atonality - Worksheet 2


1) Intervallic leaps effectively create a disjointed sound that adds to the incongruous feeling - though it doesn't really change tonal implications. in other words, intervallic leaps support the same disorientation that a lack of tonality can evoke, even though leaps don't really change the amount of tonality.

2) My hypothesis was that placement of intervals in the rhythmic structure would be a way to control the degree of tonal sense. I discovered that in a given pitch sequence, the focal point of an implied tonality can be influenced but often another tonal center will emerge. Let's assume a melodic line might imply tonality if the notes on strong beats comprise a triad. In Example 3, the notes on the strong beats are Bb (A#), C#, and F# followed by B and G in the final bar. This could be thought of as approaching the tonic with a major chord from a half step below, (VII to I) - a definitive tonal effect. Most of my examples imply some tonality even though they were constructed in strict basic form. Example 5 seems to do best at hiding implied tonality with the emphasis on the pitches Bb, A, F, and Eb. But even this example could be considered a resolution down by fifth i.e., Bb(maj7) to Eb! My chosen twelve tone row displays a variety of tonal implications depending on the its rhythmical structure, but completely avoiding some type of tonal effect is not entirely possible.

3) In most of these exercises I wrote lyrical melodic lines, so the musical shapes seemed to counter the atonal effect. However. example 4 contains unpredictable leaps that seem to work in concordance with a greater atonal effect.

4) Slower harmonic rhythms seem to imply a more tonal effect. In Example 6 the repeated tones and slower harmonic changes seem to reduce discord. The many repetitions of the note B in bars 3 and 4 imply it's function as a leading tone of a C centered modality. Additionally, one might assume the longer a note is held in relation to the others, the more likely it will be heard as a central primary pitch. In example 5 the note A is of the longest duration. Therefore the other pitches are heard in relation to it.

Note: Retrospectively, because I was writing lyrically for the violin, my examples did not use silence (rests) or isolated notes or fragments. Since silence between sounds is an important musical element, further investigation would be worthwhile.


Twelve note techniques do not eliminate the listener's tendency to gravitate to a central pitch. Rather, a composer can use the technique to create shifting hues of tonality amidst a broad view of tonal balance. In this manner, creating a great variety of tonalities could be equally as satisfying as more constricted patterns of conventional harmonic practice. Intervallic leaps, rhythmical structure, melodic shape, and harmonic rhythm can radically affect the perception of tonality in a great variety of exciting ways. As a counter balance to such a broad range of expression, a give sequence of notes has not only its own personality or character, but also unique tonal implications based on its linear intervalic structure.

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