V.com weekend vote: Do you like dissonant and/or atonal music?

January 24, 2021, 2:24 PM · This week I came across a quote by the composer Eric Korngold that turned my thoughts to the idea of dissonance, atonality, and the 20th-century experiments in new music.

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The quote appeared in the liner notes for a new album by violinist Johannes Fleischmann:

Bad-mouthed by critics for the way his music adhered to a more old-fashioned and romantic sense, Korngold wrote in 1952: "I believe that my newly completed symphony (in F-sharp) will show the world that atonality and ugly dissonance at the price of giving up inspiration, form, expression, melody and beauty will result in ultimate disaster for the art of music."

The writer of the liner notes, Jessica Dussen, went on to muse, "With adequate distance, it is gradually becoming possible to look back and ask whether he was, perhaps, right."

Whew, strong stuff!

I do recall, as a college student in the '80s, that the dominant feeling in academia remained that tonality was "out" and that composing students needed to explore innovations such as 12-tone music, atonality, experimental music, etc. Personally, a lot of those styles seemed like gimmickry to me, not really based on the physics or expressive power of music. At the same time, some of it led to interesting compositions, many that I like very much, even love.

Of course, dissonance has existed in most music of most times, but it tended to be used judiciously, like a passing cloud, to create tension or change the mood. Sustained dissonance and atonality was all the rage there for a while in the 20th century, and we still do hear it in the concert hall.

But do you like it? Do you think music is still evolving in that direction, or has tonality and consonance made a return?

I like pieces with dissonance, even sustained dissonance, when it serves an end. But I've been to concerts, even very recently, where I just wanted to walk out, where a "modern piece" seemed like an uninvited endurance test. And the "disaster for the art of music" in those kinds of experiences is that they have made me, and I suspect other classical music fans, less receptive to new music in the concert hall.

What are your thoughts about dissonance, atonality, and the direction of new music in this century and last? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.

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January 24, 2021 at 09:00 PM · I'm grateful for the examples because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to distinguish between "some" and "a healthy amount." LOL.

January 24, 2021 at 09:01 PM · For me the main thing is: does the music move me? Do I get engulfed by it and do I become an active participant (mentally)? And this can also happen with atonal music. It also can not happen with tonal music.

January 24, 2021 at 09:35 PM · My personal issue isn't so much with the quality as with the quantity. As the "modern" school grows older the pieces are getting shorter, more for smaller groups (quartets, chamber orchestras,...).

Many of the early adherents to dissonance an atonality seemed to think that they had to put it all out there in one huge work. Kind of like the first novel attempt that goes thousands of pages.

I find dissonant and atonal short works for small groups to be most interesting. I get to think about what I'm hearing without packing a lunch.

Music like everything human is evolving. As Peter Schickele quotes: "If it sounds good it is good!"

January 24, 2021 at 09:36 PM · I was taught that "dissonant" music is harsh sounding music. "Atonal" to me means music without a key center. Is that not the same as "harsh" music? "Dissonant" means the same as "atonal".

January 24, 2021 at 09:40 PM · The choices are not mutually exclusive: one can like Mozart, Debussy and Stravinsky, and even Berg's violin concerto. Most atonal music does not speak to me, however.

January 24, 2021 at 09:55 PM · there is also all consonance music. My limit for dissonance is bartok 3rd quartet, anything more dissonant just does not seem to resolve, limit for consonance is p\"art.

January 25, 2021 at 12:44 AM · Not all atonal music speaks to me but there's a lot I love unreservedly. Late-period Ginastera is a lot of fun.

What I really don't like is music that seems gimmicky -- a good amount of Schoenberg does, and Stockhausen definitely gets over-the-top with that.

January 25, 2021 at 01:38 AM · Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, etc tend to be my favourites, but I don't dislike the Berg violin concerto or Hindemith's Mathis, let alone Shostakovich (or Walton, who could have been mentioned).

A principal scientist at my last place of work genuinely liked Stockhausen and similar (I mean genuinely - He wasn't like some of the guys I was at Uni with. Neither was he a practising musician or musicologist).

I gather Stockhausen got some of his modernity from music of other cultures like Chinese, so there's a lot we mainstream Western Music aficionados don't understand about the nature of music.

January 25, 2021 at 01:53 AM · I had a lifetime quota of that stuff while at college (UC San Diego).

I prefer to call it non-tonal, or "wrong-note music". I like to say that it is impressive that those composers could write so many wrong notes without accidentally hitting a right note: especially since there are only two truly dissonant harmonic intervals, the half-step and the major seventh. Fortunately, that era, that style, is mostly behind us in music history. It lives on as background music for some horror and sci-fi movies.

January 25, 2021 at 05:07 AM · Strictly as a listener, I lived a long time in the Shostie quartets. --- my wheelhouse. The dissonance finds a correlative in his biography, taking on that scared, hyper-alert quality. It refers to a literary content while remaining purely musical. (Am I right?) But we were all there -- the Cold War.

January 25, 2021 at 06:32 AM · It really depends on the piece. I can stand a healthy amount of dissonance and chromaticism but there are a lot of contemporary compositions that are completely atonal with very little melodic content and a lot of effects and other atypical sounds, and those are usually the ones I don't enjoy as much. I do love pieces with lots of chromaticism and dissonance that has melodic flow and some pattern to it.

As a composer I really don't enjoy writing in the super contemporary idioms called for today, though I have written some highly atonal passages and pieces that mix classical harmonies with atonality :p I'm still working towards finding my sweet spot where there's still lots of melodic sequencing and logic but lots of chromaticism and dissonance too.

For instance, I like to write a lot of classically-oriented lyric pieces and showpieces for the vola, because unlike many other instruments, there are way fewer classical style pieces written for the viola as its solo literature was developed much later, so I like to focus my composition efforts on writing lyric pieces that showcase the viola as a beautiful vocal voice lol.

January 25, 2021 at 08:13 AM · This is a question which occupies my mind from time to time. My conclusion (at the moment) is that dissonance and tonality are two very different things and I have a very different response to them. Contrary to the example in the quiz, I would suggest that Mozart made extensive use of dissonance (more than Haydn or Beethoven, for instance), but always within limits (recall Haydn's comment about 'good taste') and in a tonal and 'harmonious' context, on which it depends for its impact. Many other composers have followed his example - dissonance has always been an expressive device (going back to Renaissance times), but over-used it would lose its impact.

Tonality is trickier. As an example - Bartok's 5th quartet has a clear tonal centre (B flat), but would you describe it as tonal? And it's packed full of very effective dissonance. Janacek No 1 clearly starts and ends in A minor, but Milan Skampa insisted that it has no key. I tend to side with the composer Robert Simpson, who claimed that tonality is a necessary part of our musical language, and to remove it diminishes the intellectual and expressive power of the language. His own music can be violent and dissonant at times, but usually finds some kind of resolution through tonality.

Beethoven, Nielsen and Sibelius (and others) made striking use of tonality as a major expressive force in its own right, in very different ways.

So my feeling at the moment is that dissonance is a necessary and important part of the musical language. I can appreciate almost any amount of it when it is used with purpose. Atonality I struggle with - I can't think of a genuinely atonal work which I enjoy, or listen to with any frequency (I exclude Bartok, Janacek, Shostakovich etc for the aforementioned reasons).

January 25, 2021 at 11:36 AM · Dissonant music, particularly the atonal kind has to be played pretty well exactly in tune, otherwise the listener doesn't know WHERE he is. Earlier style music is more forgiving - The listener's mind can hear what the composer intended, additionally to what his ears hear.

Years ago I heard a question on the radio: "Is modern art as bad as it is painted?". Modern music is sometimes genuinely not as bad as it sounds! At what, I think, was one of only two young people's music courses Malcolm Arnold conducted (He then entered his objectionable period), he said repeatedly that the problem with modern music was that it was not being faithfully performed.

January 25, 2021 at 03:26 PM · When I was young (seventies) a common thing people said about "modern" music was: "It is just organized noise!". To which the obvious reply is: If it is well organized it is fine.

I do believe that we hear dissonances differently from earlier generations. Being exposed to the dissonances in 12 tone music or in early Hindemith pieces has conditioned us to hear e.g. a dominant seventh chord as perfectly "consonant". Which means Mozart's music likely sounded more dissonant to his contemporaries than it does to us. Not to mention Beethoven who was sometimes using dissonance very aggressively (Coriolan overture).

BTW dissonance is not the only way 20th century music uses to generate unpleasant sound. In orchestral pieces in particular it is often the instrumentation that enhances the impact of dissonant chords or even makes perfectly "normal" chords sound "dissonant", for example right at the beginning of Shostakovich's 4th symphony.

January 25, 2021 at 06:04 PM · For me personally, if it takes academics and musicologists to explain the music to me and why I should like it... I usually don't like it.

January 25, 2021 at 06:08 PM · Jeff, that is a very good point! If the academics and musicologists can shed new light and make things more interesting, fine, but the music should be able to stand on its own expressive merits.

As with writing, if the reader "doesn't get it," it might not have been well-said. It's up to the artist to provide enough context within the medium to make it work for the intended audience.

January 25, 2021 at 06:28 PM · I'm afraid I'm not a fan of dissonance at all. Sometimes - as in Biber's Battalia - I enjoy it because it serves a thematic purpose.

As someone whose ear was formed by folk music, I suppose that's to be expected.

January 25, 2021 at 08:35 PM · Interesting the examples. Late Beethoven was regarded as dissonant BITD.

I remember these kinds of discussion in my music school in college. So many traditionalist among the young players, vocal majors. But as my advisor said, "Maybe you'll change your tune about 'new music,' 'dissonance,' and 'atonal' music after you've played the same Romantic era concerto for the 100th time.

January 26, 2021 at 02:14 AM · I think I have my limits, but I can't exactly find the rhyme or reason enough to answer. I got a cd from the library of a Ligeti quartet music and I really dug it, but Schoenberg hasn't found any kind of stable place in my listening, but I like some Berg and Webern. I think it's something along the lines of being able to detect enough patterns (or some things I think are patterns) that the music starts to cohere, even it's more along gestural or rhythmic lines than in harmony and melody.

You know how if you close your eyes and let your mind wander, the sound of traffic can trick you into thinking there's a river nearby?

January 26, 2021 at 02:32 AM · I don't want to get bogged down in the semantics of dissonance vs. atonality. I can only tolerate so much stuff that is what I would call "itchy and scratchy" music. I remember going to a concert where we were told, from the stage, that the piece was kind of modern and "it'll grow on you" and so forth, but we were also told that it would end with "eleven C-sharps" in the low register of the piano. And I remember looking around the audience when the eleven C-sharps started and seeing palpable relief surging through the crowd: "Thank God it's almost over."

I don't agree, however, that something is automatically bad because it has to be explained to the audience. Watch the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Geoff Nuttall explains Haydn and Beethoven to his audiences, and I think the point is not just to shift a few voters from red to blue (to borrow an untimely metaphor), but to enrich the experience for everyone.

I listen to jazz, but really, I don't enjoy Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or Don Pullen. I've tried, but the best I can do is what I call "educational" listening. The albums they made earlier in their career before they went off the deep end are sometimes interesting because you can hear some of the ideas just creeping into the music in a more diluted way.

January 26, 2021 at 09:56 PM · The culinary equivalent of dissonance is strong spices. Used judiciously, they can bring out wonderful flavours. But if overused, they can destroy a dish.

I generally prefer fairly consonant music, but I occasionally enjoy a bit of dissonance to spice things up. The Troika from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije uses dissonance to turn a fanfare into an object of satire, which is the desired effect.

I'll occasionally dip into composers like Stravinsky, but Schoenberg is a bit over the top for me. On the other hand, I'll never forget the creepy, otherworldly feeling that Ligeti brought to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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