Atonality describes music composed from around 1908 to the present day that does not have a tonal centre or key. There are many different variations on Atonal music. For example, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) created “free atonality” or as he called it “pan-tonality”. A conscious attempt to oppose diatonic harmony. Despite it’s “free” use of note choices a Hierarchy of pitches is often used. This means that some notes have more importance than others to the music. These referential pitches, rather than defining a key, create a group of notes or cell that is often repeated. Franz Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle sans’ was one of the first Atonal pieces, it was composed in 1885. His Ideas were later applied in different ways by Schoenberg and The Second Viennese School in the 20th century. Similarly Alban Berg wrote the music for the opera Wozzeck (1917-1922). These compositions are considered to be the first phase of “free atonality/chromaticism”.
The second phase of Atonality began after World War 1. This was the start of a method called the ‘Twelve-tone technique’ also referred to as dodecaphony. The system of composition was devised by Schoenberg in 1921. A way of composing ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another. At the same time preventing emphasis of any particular notes, to create tone rows. A tone row refers to a non- repetitive ordering of a set of pitches. For example the opening 2 bars of Schoenberg’s Op.25 Minuet Trio. The best known twelve-note compositions include ‘Variations for Orchestra’ by Arnold Schoenberg, “Quiet” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, satirises the method by using it for a song about boredom. Benjamin Britten used a twelve-tone row, a “tema seriale con fuga” in his Cantata Academica: Carmen Basiliense (1959). Atonality is now widely used in Jazz music too. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew session is almost entirely atonal. This is not uncommon in numerous other jazz composers.