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Why There is No More 'Tonal music' in Classical Music Nowadays?

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When you think about the beginning of 20th century, what image comes to your mind? Many would think that this period as developing, rapid, and chaotic time. It is true. Indeed, it was a time of swift and tumultuous change in Western countries. Significant advancements in science were evident, imperial nations were expanding their territories, and people found themselves working in factories. The early 20th century was indeed a chaotic and transformative era, and the world of arts, including music, was no exception.

But why did this happen? Why composers started to write music that 'sounded chaotic?' This blog will follow the trajectory of how classical music started to escape from 'normal music.' Until the late 19th century, composers adhered to traditional musical elements that we are familiar with, such as the concepts of harmony and tonal music. However, the early 20th century marked a departure from these established musical structures, reflecting the chaotic spirit of the era. Instead of following 19th-century musical conventions, composers began to seek musical revolution and innovation. Here we are going to give you some examples of pioneers of innovative music!



If you think of composers in the 19th century, the most famous ones were German composers. Including Beethoven, Shubert, and Wagner, Germany had been dominating the classical music scene until the early 20th century. However, it is prominent to see its musical shift from Germany to other countries including France. In France, Paris was the most important city of arts where impressionism was leading the aesthetic. Think of Claude Monet, his painting reflects nature in work. In line with Claude Monet, Debussy started composing music of impressionism that features rich harmonies to express emotion in music. While this is not a new way in music at all, Debussy’s music serves as pioneer to reject the idea of tonal music.

Claude Debussy was born in 1862. Although his parents were nothing related to music - his father was a salesman mother was a tailor - at the age of 10, his musical talents were already mature enough for him to be accepted to the most prestigious music college in Paris. He started learning piano performance there, but soon his composing talent was shining as he started his musical journey as a composer. Some of his most famous compositions, like "Clair de Lune" and "La Mer," exemplify this unique style. Debussy's work left an indelible mark on 20th-century music, profoundly influencing future composers like Ravel and Stravinsky.

In this music, you’ll be able to find out that there is something different, nothing serious but very subtle nuanced changes are happening. This is because Debussy invented his own way of using harmony that is mysterious, indirect, and avoid the 19th century’s harmonic idea of resolution. Melody was also fragmented and clouded, which leads us to escape from the structured and organized music that had been dominating before Debussy. He was passionate about breaking the musical norms as he said: “I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.”



We’re now moving from France to Russia! Again, not from Germany, Stravinsky heavily draws upon musical influence from Russian artistic features.

Unlike Debussy, Stravinsky was born in music family. His father was a bass singer and mother was a pianist. However, Stravinsky was forced to study law by his family. After the father’s death, Stravinsky started composing music. Even though he started his musical journey in Russia, he was indeed a transnational composer who went to Switzerland and then France with his family. Finally, he became an American citizen after moving to the United States in 1939.

His musical style was often referred to as something barbaric, because of his use of folk music elements. Its harmony is dissonant, giving us uncomfortable feeling while listening to his music. It is unemotional, heavy, and abstract. More importantly, rhythm is unpredictable! Irregular rhythm is the most distinctive feature of Stravinsky’s music. This led the audiences to be panicked during the premier of "The Rite of Spring." This piece sounds violent, dissonant, and loud. Moreover, the choreography used for this premier reflected ritual murder, which led a riot from the audiences.



While France and Russia made their own way of musicality, what was happening in Germany and Austria? In this period, European composers tended to indulge into psychoanalytic point of view. Most representatively, composers were obsessed with the idea of hysteria and nightmare in music. This movement is called expressionism. Schoenberg, an Austrian composer, was the leading figure of German expressionist.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874. At age 8, he started playing violin and consequently being interested in composing music. He is well known for inventing new musical techniques and ideas. “Emancipation of dissonance” is one of them. It refers to the idea that dissonance should be liberated from its traditional role as a temporary, tension-building element in music. This means that unlike the traditional idea that dissonant harmony, which gives tension to music is not in need of resolution. Dissonant harmony could exist independently, giving the ultimate paradigm in the 20th century. Further, he created revolutionary technique, “serialism,” with this idea of ‘not giving resolution’ again. Series, or called as ‘twelve-tone system,’ is a method of composing with the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. This rejects the idea of tonal music, which is consisted of major or minor scale. By giving a completely new genre of system, the 20th century music began to seek a way of escaping from the previous musical system.

Here, I would like to introduce "Pierrot Lunaire" as the representative atonal music from Schoenberg. Although it was composed even before he started to use serialism, it shows that traditional tonal centers and harmonies are abandoned. The text for "Pierrot Lunaire" is based on a collection of 21 poems by the Belgian-French poet Albert Giraud. The poem shows the character Pierrot, a classic figure who is portrayed as a tragic one. Accordingly, the music reflects the madness, alienation, and the surreal, which is the core theme of expressionism.


Likewise, the classical music in the 20th century showed a radical departure from the conventional idea of tonal music. While traditional tonal music has certain canonical way of composing music, atonal music allows composers to become more creative, letting them invent new musical techniques and ideas. As a result, contemporary classical music we know nowadays is sounded something creepy, uncomfortable, and unusual but extraordinary and innovative ones.

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