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Atonal? Be Tonal? See Tonal!

Musicians today face many of the same challenges that the composers of the Second Viennese School did: In essence, we’re all just searching for ways to make music that pushes the boundaries, but also sounds pretty cool. Composer Arnold Schoenberg did it by deciding to do away with one of the very ideas that had governed Western concert music since the time of Bach: Tonality. 

Since he attempted to create a system in which notes were defined simply as isolated notes and given equal value, not relative to some fundamental pitch, the music of the Second Viennese School became known as “atonal.” 
Many have criticized atonal music for sounding emotion-less and random, but composers like Alban Bern, Anton Webern, and Krzysztof Penderecki have been able to use 12-tone systems to create some of the most stunning music of the 20th century. 

So whether you’re looking for some new compositional language to bring some unpredictability into your music, or you just want to shake up your creative habits, here are three easy, useful techniques that you can use to de-tonalize your music — courtesy of the Viennese!

1. 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 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 12-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 any other — 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).

There are three basic kinds of transformations of tone rows:
  • Inversion: Keep every interval in the melody the same, but change its direction.
  • Retrograde: Reverse the order of the notes being played, as if you were reading the music from right to left.
  • Retrograde inversion: Apply both of the above transformations to the same set of notes. In other words, reverse the order of the notes and the direction of the intervals.   
2. Melody-Informed Harmonies
Try deriving your chords from the melody you’re singing, or that the solo instrumentalist is playing. To do this, simply isolate groups 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 so on, and use those underneath your melody. It doesn't have to make sense, but it will sound interesting every time! 

3. Focus on Timbre
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 space via electronic instruments or via synthesis and processing. 

Whether it’s running an actual instrument through a series of effects, or using a synthesizer 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 never could’ve dreamed of.

Godspeed on your new atonal journey! 
Brant Wilson, Flypaper author
Here's what we're talking about on Flypaper this week. 

How the EP Killed the LP Star
Examining the journey of the "extended play" format from an obscure in-between gimmick to a legitimate vessel for releasing music.

Did you know...

... that Sean Lennon was born on this day (October 9) in 1975, and that he shares the exact same birthday as his father, John Lennon (October 9, 1940)? 

Yup. Time is a flat circle.
Your challenge this...month!
Add to the October drone: strings
Want to participate in creating a Soundfly Community composition?

What we're asking for now is for anyone that plays a string instrument (and that includes plucked instruments like guitars, harps and ukeleles) to send editor Jeremy Young a recording of one or two sustained tones by emailing him here. If you play a wind instrument and you missed the last email, feel free to send me some drones too! By the end of the month, we'll combine all of the tracks together to create a collaborative work of multi-instrumental minimalism!

As always, if you choose to participate we'll automatically send you a one-of-a-kind discount code to use on any Soundfly Mainstage course. Or just do it out of the sheer joy that comes from contributing to a massive, crowdsourced musical project.
One of our amazing Soundfly Mentors, the NYC-via-Instanbul singer-songwriter and producer SIRMA just released a brand new single, entitled "Coming Undone." While she normally prefers to work alone, this track saw her step outside her comfort zone to initiate a co-writing session with fellow Berklee alum Megan Dervin-Ackerman and fellow Flypaper writer Myles Avery!

Listen to Sirma's brand new track, "Coming Undone," here.

Take me to a random article in the archives, please. Okay!

Anything you'd like to learn in an upcoming Soundfly Weekly issue? Send us an email and let us know!

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