Audio: atonal melody (0:06)
atonal melody plays an atonal melody in 6/4 meter twice, first on a church organ then on a piano. The atonal melody figure shows the score:
- The melody is a tone row consisting of 12 eighth notes.
- Each note played by the church organ has the same value.
- The piano (not shown in the score) uses random note values to create a different rhythm.
A tone row is a melody using the twelve notes in the chromatic scale.
Creating a tone row is straightforward. A note is chosen at random from the twelve notes in the chromatic scale. No note is repeated and all twelve notes are used. Each note thus has a different pitch. The simplest form of tone row contains notes with the same duration or value. This is shown in the first part of atonal melody. Things are made more interesting by choosing the note value at random as well as the pitch. This is the case in the second part of atonal melody. It is also one of the few instances where a picture is not worth a thousand words because it is easier to explain what is going on rather than show it in a score. The process is simple. Each note has a possible value from the series 1, 1/2, 1/3 up to 1/12. Each note has a value taken at random from the series. Every note thus has a different value.
Chance music, or aleatoric music, is music which has a random element. The melody in atonal melody is aleatoric, both the pitch and duration of a note are chosen at random. Chance is a very useful tool in music writing generally and atonal music in particular. It also leads to a thought-provoking debate about how much control a music writer should relinquish over a piece of music.
Atonal music has a structure and logic all of its own. All the notes in the chromatic scale are used and there are countless melodic and rhythmic permutations.
Atonal music has a fearsome reputation. It is perceived as difficult, dissonant and hard to sing and play. That may be so, but it is certainly easy to write.