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The Intersection of Science, Art, Music & Humanities

Alban Berg: Flirting with Atonality

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Today we will focus on controversial music that does not always conform to the system of tonal hierarchies. Like abstract art, scotch, sardines, oysters, and okra, it can be an acquired taste, but worth cultivating. 

According to New World Encyclopedia research, “atonality usually describes compositions written from about 1907, to the present day where tonality is not used as a primary foundation for the work.” The musical form has been denounced as decidedly inhumane by a few prominent composers, or the exhaustion of the major-minor key system.


The father of the term atonal, was Arnold Schoenberg at the Second Viennese School, which also included my favorite atonal composer, Alban Berg. They described atonality as the inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others.

One fan of Berg's music wrote that it is not something you listen to when you want to dance or sing, it's rather something that unveils the dissonance of life in its tragic happiness and its dreariness.

You will absolutely love it, or hate it, depending on your mood, and you may find it perfect for these times, or not. 

In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as being “Bolshevik” and labeled as degenerate, along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime.


The Second Viennese School, and particularly 12-tone composition, became popular with avant-garde composers in the 1950s and was referred to as the foundation of "New Music." More contemporary atonal composers include Bela Bartok, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Ornette Coleman, and my beloved John Coltrane.

Schoenberg’s predictions in 1948 suggested that the public’s resistance to atonality and the emancipation of dissonance would eventually diminish with repeated exposure. Unfortunately, that was proven false since too many people would not take the time to listen a few times to allow their senses to develop appreciation—again, not unlike abstract art, scotch, sardines, oysters, and okra.

Leonard Bernstein once stated, “The trouble is that the new musical rules of Schoenberg are not based on innate awareness or the intuition of tonal relationships. They are like rules of an artificial language, and therefore must be learned.”

The New World Encyclopedia research suggests that many musicians and critics alike have referred to atonal music as form without content or form at the expense of content,’ and structuralism for its own sake. 

For some musicians, hyper-intellectualized methods of composing with emotionally dry characteristics seems antithetical to the philosophical legacy of the standard musical art form. Others have flatly denied the ethic power of music, nor do they feel any moral obligation to participate in any new form.

Here's the really good news: Atonality has certainly not replaced tonality, but it has not disappeared. Acceptance of this diverse musical form seems to be the result of cultural cross-pollination, which contributes greatly to awareness of humanity and appreciation of different forms of music, art, and food.

Let us know what you think.


Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff


Today’s Sunday Morning Stop at the Intersection of Science, Art, Music and Humanities features Itzhak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing Alban Berg's 1935 violin concerto titled, To the Memory of an Angel. Its dissonance has a unique beauty that appeals to our auditory neurons in a different way than normal music, so try to be patient enough to give it a fair hearing. 

Berg dedicated this atonal concerto to Manon Gropius, daughter of Walter Gropius, the architect and founder of the Bauhaus, and diarist, Alma Mahler Gropius, widow of the romantic composer, Gustav Mahler. The Bauhaus was a famous German school that focused on architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography.

We also strongly recommend taking a few minutes to listen to the first cut on John Coltrane's 1964  "A Love Supreme"  It's a classic jazz example of the beauty of mixing both tonal and atonal progressions. It features Coltrane on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Great music is often composed during turbulent times in history by stunningly wonderful artists.  

Biosyntrx strongly believes that appreciation, exploration, and commitment to science, art, music, and humanities add significantly to the global greater good and are important parts of the intellectual whole.