Audio: serialism (0:08)

Figure: serialism

serialism plays serial music by an ensemble comprising piccolos, violas and timpani. The serialism figure shows the score:

  • Piccolos in the top part play the prime row three times, {6,11,9,0,7,5,1,10,3}. The notes are randomly grouped in ones, twos and threes.
  • Violas in the middle part play an invert variant of the prime row, {0,5,7,11,2,9,6,1,3}, twice. The notes are randomly grouped in ones and twos.
  • Timpani in the bottom part play a retrograde variant of the prime tone row, {5,7,0,9,11,6,3,10,1}.
  • Each note is assigned a random duration of one, two or three eighth notes.

Serialism is an extension of twelve tone harmony.

Serialism suffers from definitional problems more than most other approaches to harmony. In a general sense, serial music is any music that repeats itself over and over again. In a more precise sense, serialism incorporates and extends the methods of twelve tone harmony.

The randomly generated tone row is the fundamental element of twelve tone harmony and of serialism. In both approaches the pitch of a note is chosen at random. The notes in a tone row are always chosen at random for a reason, to avoid the possibility of accidentally creating a scale. No note is repeated in a tone row for a reason, to avoid accidentally creating the impression that the repeat note is the tonic of a scale.

Serialism extends the role of chance to include factors other than pitch. These include:

  • Random choice of note value.
  • Random choice of note amplitude.
  • Random choice of instrument.
  • Random choice of a scale other than the chromatic scale.

The writer of serialism can select all these factors at random. This is pure chance music, or aleatoric music, to give it a technical name. Alternatively, the writer can direct the music in some way, for example, by placing constraints on the range of note values to be used or by manually altering the score. Chance is built into serialism but its scope is decided by the writer.

Chance is used to write most of serialism. The prime row contains nine notes randomly chosen from the chromatic scale. Three instruments were chosen at random: the piccolo, representing woodwind, the viola, representing strings, and timpani, representing pitched percussion. The tone rows are repeated randomly, the notes are grouped randomly in ones, twos or threes, and the note values are random. The rests are the only things that are not random, they were added manually to ensure that all the parts ended at the same time.

Some serial music has been analysed over the years and you might like to explore this longish list of tone rows for ideas. It includes some tone rows that have unique properties, such as the all-interval tetrachord containing four notes and all six intervals. There are still another half a billion or so series yet to be catalogued.