The Problem with Atonal Music
by Miles Hoffman
condensed from an article called
"Music Without Magic"

Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director
of the American Chamber Players,
and music commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition.

In 1817, Franz Schubert set these words of the poet Franz von Schober to music in his song “An die Musik”:
O gracious Art, in how many gray hours
When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me,
Hast thou kindled my heart to warm love,
Hast charmed me into a better world.
Oft has a sigh, issuing from thy harp,
A sweet, blest chord of thine,
Thrown open the heaven of better times;
O gracious Art, for that I thank thee!
Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music

But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts?

We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle.

Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.

Where does music come in? Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning.

The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is a metaphor for loneliness: It’s a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses—and, through them, our minds and our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence.

We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.

One way we are comforted when we’re lonely is to feel that at least someone understands us, knows what we’re going through. When we feel the sympathy of others, and especially when we feel empathy, we experience companionship—we no longer feel entirely alone.

And strangely enough, music can provide empathy. The structure of music, its essential nature—with many simultaneous, complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements is an exact mirror of the psyche, of the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions. This makes it a perfect template onto which we can project our personal complexes of emotions. And when we make that projection, we hear in music our own emotions—or images and memories of our emotions—reflected back. And because the reflection is so accurate, we feel understood. We recognize, and we feel recognized.

It’s a kind of illusion, but it’s a beautiful one, and very comforting. And, in fact, it’s not entirely an illusion, because even though the specifics may differ, we all share the same kinds of emotions. We all know love and loss and longing, and in different measure we all know joy and despair. We’re linked with the composer of the music by our common humanity. And if a composer has found a compelling way to express his or her own emotions, then to a certain extent that composer can’t really avoid expressing, and touching, ours as well.

Not to be forgotten among these psychological considerations is what Joseph Conrad called “the inexhaustible joy that lives in beauty.” The sheer beauty of music lifts us up and gives us hope, reminding us in our darkest moments, in our “gray hours,” that life itself can still hold wonders and beauties.

Furthermore, the very “movement” of music, its rhythmic movement through time, carries inevitable associations with life, with positive forces and feelings. Life is movement and movement is life, and joyous music can literally get us moving again when we’ve been stunned or stilled by sadness.

Did I say “movement through time”? Ah, time. It passes in music. But not without purpose, not without reasons, not without . . . meaning. And that’s just the point: Music gives meaning to time. If all those overlapping and interweaving elements and events in a piece of music indeed mean something, if they remind, reflect, comfort, inspire, or excite—then by definition the time it takes for them to do all that means something too.

When I played in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., years ago, I used to have a regular little joke. Before we began a lengthy symphony, I’d turn to my colleague on stage and say, “See you in 45 minutes.”

A piece of music must take a certain amount of time; there’s no way around it. And though it may be just a self-contained fragment of time, a little world of its own, within that fragment time is used, arranged, and manipulated so that the passage of time makes sense.


I have a friend who’s fond of saying that it took a thousand years to invent the C major chord. The system of writing music in clearly defined major and minor keys is called tonality, or “tonal harmony,” and music written in that system is called “tonal music.”

We can only guess at how the music of the ancients sounded (and my friend exaggerates), but we know that from the beginnings of Gregorian chant, somewhere around a.d. 600, it did indeed take about a thousand years for tonality to evolve, and to find general acceptance. By 1700, it had reached a position of unchallenged primacy in Western music.

What does it mean for a piece to be “in a key”? Well, when a piece of music is in the key of C major, for example, it means that the harmony of C major functions as the home base, the harmonic center of gravity of the piece. A piece in C major will establish the C major harmony at the beginning (using the notes of a C major chord) and return to it in no uncertain terms at the end. In technical terms the home harmony is called the “tonic,” and the gravitational force of the tonic—built into the system and cleverly exploited by the composer even if we’re not always aware of it—is inexorable.

Between its beginning and end, however, a piece will inevitably traverse any number of other harmonies, major and minor. The various harmonies don’t follow each other randomly: They’re ordered in progressions, one harmony leading to the next, sometimes in predictable ways, sometimes in unusual or surprising ways.

And the most important aspect of these progressions—indeed, the defining aspect of all tonal music— is that dissonant chords, chords that contain jarring or unsettling sounds, always eventually lead to consonant chords, chords that “please the ear.”

Let me emphasize immediately that the pleasing qualities of consonant chords and intervals, and the power of tonal relationships in general, are not arbitrary constructs. They were determined empirically, over the course of centuries. And they are firmly rooted in the laws of acoustical physics, with frequency ratios and a natural phenomenon called the harmonic series (or overtone series) playing vital roles. Or to put it another way, the origins of tonality lie not in a set of inventions and decisions but in the fundamental nature of sound.

To be clear: Tonal music contains lots of dissonance. If you were to string together all the dissonant chords in a piece by Bach (or Schubert or Tchaikovsky or any other composer of tonal music) with no other chords between, the effect would loosen your fillings.

But the dissonances in tonal music are never strung together that way, because the function of dissonance is to provide tension, and that tension is always resolved by a return to consonance.

Indeed, the true genius of the tonal system is that it enables a composer to combine the power and momentum of harmonic progressions with the manipulation of melodic material, in ways that create the impression of a narrative, a dramatic structure complete with characters, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate resolution.

So, pleasing sounds, striking contrasts, coherent dramatic structures that form clear relationships and patterns—for more than 200 years this remarkable system served as the unquestioned foundation of Western music. Countless composers of every conceivable individual and national style shared the basic framework of tonality; they spoke what was essentially a common musical language.

Add two centuries and a little bit to 1700, and you arrive somewhere in the early 20th century. The basic framework of tonality was still in place, but by this point its boundaries had been expanding for some time.

As the new century began, this expansion of tonality’s limits was so extensive that, despite an ever-accumulating repertory of great works, some thought that the potential of Western music’s traditional tonal resources was nearing exhaustion. The foundation, according to a particular theory of music history that’s still current, was crumbling fast.

But was it? In listing composers whose music sits comfortably in a tonal framework, I could include any number of extraordinary composers whose careers extended well into the 20th century—and, in some cases, well beyond the century’s midpoint.

I might start with Jean Sibelius and Sergei Rachmaninoff and continue with Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, Ernest Bloch, Leos Janácek, Sergei Prokofiev, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Bohuslav Martinu, Alberto Ginastera, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Leonard Bernstein. Not a bad list, and by no means a complete one. These composers are among the greatest, most revered musical figures of the 20th century, and they simply don’t fit the theory. If tonality was on its last legs, somebody must have forgotten to tell them.


Another composer made quite an impact in the early 20th century, however, and his name was Arnold Schönberg. Born in Vienna in 1874, Schönberg was at first an exponent of the expansionist, superheated style of late-19th-century Romanticism. But by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, he was on his way to a dramatic renunciation of tonality that included a rejection of consonant harmonies and a happy embrace of dissonance.

And by the early 1920s, he had introduced a novel method of composition that came to be known as the “12-tone” method.

In 12-tone music, the composer orders the 12 tones of the chromatic scale (the scale that on the piano includes all the keys, black and white, in any one octave) in a series of his choosing called a “tone row,” and that row—in place of traditional scales, harmonies, and harmonic progressions—functions in complex ways as the basis for all the musical elements of the piece.

Twelve-tone music (also called “serial” music) is by definition “atonal”: It’s not in a key, and it doesn’t depend on consonant harmonies to provide stability or resolve tension.

In theory, the point in 12-tone music is not that dissonance is good and consonance is bad, but rather that they’re both irrelevant. In practice, however, Schönberg’s 12-tone works, especially his early ones, were strikingly dissonant.

Schönberg claimed to have “liberated” dissonance. There are some, however, who would say that, far from leading to a “liberation” of dissonance—a liberation whose necessity was by no means generally acknowledged—Schönberg’s system led, rather, to a tyranny of dissonance.

The serial music of Schönberg became enormously influential, to an extent way beyond anything having to do with its general acceptance or popularity. This influence came about through Schönberg’s own tireless efforts as a teacher and musical zealot, through the proselytizing and philosophizing efforts of various musicians, writers, and critics, and through a strange and complicated confluence of aesthetic and political influences, especially after World War II.

The works themselves were controversial from the beginning, to put it mildly. They were often critically reviled, and to this day they have never found more than a very narrow public.

But Schönberg’s serialism led directly to a postwar European avant-garde or “modernist” movement spearheaded by such composers as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Ligeti. It led to a simultaneous modernist movement in the United States whose seminal figure was John Cage.

And it led ultimately to a 50-year modernist reign in the world of Western classical music, a reign in which to have any hope of being taken seriously by the critical and academic communities, composers were obligated, regardless of their specific styles and techniques, to avoid traditional tonal procedures and the comforts of consonance and to accept that dissonance was king.

Now, it’s true that we often add salt and hot spices to our food to enhance its flavor and heighten contrasts, and it’s important to remember that some people like their food much hotter and spicier than others.

It’s true as well that harsh elements can be a tool of great visual art, and that much great literature makes use of disturbing images or harrowing episodes, or both. But is there a chef on the planet who suggests swallowing a tablespoon of salt for an appetizer and following it with a bowl of Tabasco for an entrée before washing it all down with a cup of vinegar?

We know from listening to tonal music that dissonance can be wonderfully useful when it’s employed imaginatively. It can enhance and even create meaning.

But in and of itself, dissonance is something that people fundamentally don’t like—that’s its very definition. When composers nonetheless demand that their listeners endure dissonance at great length and without letup, it’s hard not to see that demand as something spiteful, stubbornly aggressive, even hostile.

The Beethoven Myth

The primary proposition in defense of relentlessly dissonant and persistently unpopular avant-garde music has always been that, through exposure and familiarity, we often come to appreciate, and even love, things that initially confuse or displease us.

Here what we might call “the Beethoven Myth” comes into play. “Beethoven was misunderstood in his time,” the argument goes, “but now the whole world recognizes his genius. I am misunderstood in my time, therefore I am like Beethoven.”

This reasoning, unfortunately, has been the refuge of countless second- and third-rate talents. Beethoven ate fish, too. If you eat fish, are you like Beethoven?

But there’s a much graver flaw in the argument: Beethoven was not misunderstood in his time. Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the world in his time, and the most admired. And if there were those who didn’t “get” his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces.

In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false. It’s difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a masterpiece that was not appreciated as such either while its composer was alive or within a relatively short period after his death.

“But there was a riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring!” Yes, that was at the premiere, in Paris in May 1913. But the Rite was performed again almost immediately, without riots, in Paris and London, and quickly acquired its stature as perhaps the most celebrated and influential piece of the 20th century. It has since been performed and recorded more times than anyone could possibly count.

Still, tastes do evolve, and we’re reminded that people who as children eat and drink only Velveeta and soda pop often later develop a taste for Camembert and cognac. That’s fine, even if it may be a little on the generous side to use “Camembert and cognac” as analogues for unpleasant sounds. But I’m afraid the “lesson” has usually been taken considerably further, and reinforced with large doses of intellectual condescension and intimidation.

While much of the public would be perfectly willing to acknowledge that Camembert and cognac can be wonderful elements of a diet, what we’ve heard from the avant-garde establishment for years has been something like this: “Yes, we know from centuries of experience that most people find a steady diet of nothing but Camembert and cognac unappealing, and there is no reason to believe that that will ever change. Nonetheless, starting now we are going to feed you . . . a steady diet of nothing but Camembert and cognac. We don’t care that you find it unappealing, because we’ve decided that this dietary change is necessary; it represents Progress. And if you can’t accept this Progress, it’s only because you’re not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to understand and appreciate it.”

The Quest for Meaning

If the joys and comforts of beautiful sounds were all we sought in music, the dominance of dissonance would be the only problem of avant-garde music that we’d need to consider. But we’re also burdened by our fundamental quest for meaning, our need for music to make sense.

Psychiatrist Anthony Reading, in his book Hope and Despair, writes “Before we can process and store the input our senses receive, we first have to be able to perceive the information that it contains, to distinguish meaningful signals from meaningless noise. Information detection involves perceiving recurrent patterns in data, deviations from apparent randomness.”

Reading emphasizes that “information is contained in the way objects are arranged within a system, not in the objects themselves,” and just as Bach and Beethoven would wholeheartedly agree, so would Schönberg and his musical descendants. The musical objects—notes, chords, rhythms—in the works of many modernist composers are in fact arranged with extraordinary care, and sometimes with dazzling intellectual complexity.

The catch is that for the arrangements to convey “information,” to be meaningful, they have to be perceivable: Unrecognizable or imperceptible patterns are the same as no patterns at all. And without patterns we lose our bearings. We’re not sure where we are or where we’ve been, and therefore we have little interest in wherever it is we may be going.

This is where Schönberg himself so often failed, and where others have most grievously failed. They have either grossly overestimated or willfully ignored the limits of the auditory perceptual abilities of most human beings, and somewhere along the way they have either forgotten or willfully ignored the reasons most people listen to music in the first place.

They, or their boosters, may write detailed, not to say impenetrably turgid, analyses of the structural underpinnings of their works and the strict mathematical relationships inherent therein, but to the extent that those relationships remain completely unapparent to the human ear—as they so often do—they’re meaningless, and what we actually hear is . . . noise.

Or we could just call it bad music. Why not?

Molière said, “Anyone can be an honorable man, and yet write verse badly.” No one would dispute that there have been many honorable, sincere, dedicated, and very nice men and women writing music over the past 80 years. But if there are such things as “good music” or “good pieces” or “great pieces,” then there must also be such things as bad pieces.

There must be pieces that don’t work very well or don’t work at all, pieces that to most ears don’t make sense, and that therefore cannot do what honorable, sincere, and open-minded music lovers look for music to do.

Do we agree that Bach and Handel were the greatest composers of the Baroque era? Then the other Baroque composers were . . . less great. And some were not very good at all.

What’s interesting is that we have little difficulty in agreeing on many of these distinctions when the people in question are long dead. Why not make distinctions while people are still alive, when making these distinctions might actually be useful?

Despite what we’ve been told so often to think, why not go by what we hear? Why not say this: If a piece has had 30 or 50—or 80—years to be “understood” by the public but still isn’t, the chances are extremely good that it’s not ever going to be. And that’s far more likely the fault of the piece, and the composer, than of audiences.

Why not come out and say, without fear and without apology for our supposed shortcomings, that the emperor has been naked, and that too much of the music written over the past five decades has been just plain bad?

Am I being too harsh? Have I exaggerated the intensity of the distaste that so much modernist music has aroused? No, sad to say, not if we keep certain factors in mind.

One is the strength of the needs, the intensity of the desires, that we fulfill with music. Our expectations of music—expectations of the type nurtured, reinforced, and satisfied for generation upon generation—are enormous, and enormously important to us, and when those expectations are disappointed, we take it very badly indeed.

Another crucial factor is time. One of the more obvious reasons we appreciate music’s giving meaning to time is that our supply of time is so limited. But this is also why we so strongly resent having our time wasted!

If you see a painting hanging on the wall and don’t like it, you simply turn your gaze elsewhere, and hardly any time has been squandered. But if you go to a concert and the program includes music you find ugly or unpleasant, precious minutes of your life tick away, lost. You could have done something else with that little part of your life, anything else, but you’re stuck four seats from the aisle, and time is passing. From resentment to hatred is but a small step.

And, of course, not many people enjoy being insulted, either, or falsely accused. In a 1964 speech at the Colorado campus of the Aspen Institute, the English composer Benjamin Britten said, “It is insulting to address anyone in a language which they do not understand.” And if what’s said—or played—seems so often to be couched intentionally in a language that virtually nobody could understand, and yet one finds oneself blamed over and over again for not understanding. . . .

Let me repeat: People have written very good and very moving pieces in styles that have little or nothing to do with tonality. Good composers find a way to write good music.

But while tonal music benefits from a built-in logic established by centuries of development, any primarily atonal idiom requires the composer to create his or her own logic, and that can be very difficult.

When it’s done well, the logic makes itself understood, even on first hearing. Notes, harmonies, and rhythms follow one another in patterns that make sense, and the musical language, though perhaps unfamiliar, unusual, or highly spiced with dissonance, is comprehensible and convincing.

Inevitably, however, we return to the fact that there’s something basic to human nature in the perception of “pleasing sounds,” and in the strength of the tonal structures that begin and end with those sounds.

Blue has remained blue to us over the centuries, and yellow yellow, and salt has never started tasting like sugar. With or without physics, consonances are consonances because to most people they sound good, and we abandon them at great risk.

History will say—history says now—that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure.

Deeply flawed at their musical and philosophical roots, unloving and oblivious to human limits and human needs, these movements left us with far too many works that are at best unloved, at worst detested. They led modern classical music to crisis, confusion, and, in many quarters, despair, to a sense that we’ve wasted decades.

The good news is that there are many composers today who, despite the uncertain footing, are striving successfully, to write works that are worthy of our admiration and affection. They write in a variety of styles, but the ones who are most successful are those who are finding ways—often by assimilating ethnic idioms and national popular traditions—to invest their music with both rhythmic vitality and lyricism. They’re finding ways to reconnect music to its eternal roots in dance and song.

Still, I can’t help wondering: Will anybody ever find new ways that are so striking, so wonderful, that our entire musical landscape will be transformed as if by magic?

Well, magic itself may actually be our only hope for such a transformation. The mathematician Mark Kac, in attempting to describe the extraordinary genius of physicist Richard Feynman, came up with the following formulation:
“There are two kinds of geniuses, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. . . . It is different with the magicians . . . the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.”
If we’re very lucky, a musical magician may come along one day who will perform miracles in ways that are completely unforeseeable to us now. Others will learn from his or her work and contribute new riches. The term “modern music” will take on a wonderfully positive ring, and the heaven of better times will be thrown open to us.

O gracious Art, let’s hope we get lucky.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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