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Serial Music
and other new trends in Western Art Music of the 20th century
In the 20th Century composers of Western Art Music experimented in the same way that artists did. The result was
that things like melody, pitch, rhythm and time were used very differently to make up music. Whole tone music,
atonal music, bitonal music, microtonal music, serial music and minimalist music were some of the different types
of new music that were a result of this experimentation. Minimalist music is discussed on a separate page.
Atonal music and Bitonal music
Atonal music is music where the composer has experimented with pitch and melody to the point where there is no
home note in the music. Bitonal music is when the composer uses 2 different key signatures (ie 2 different home
notes), in two different parts, at the same time.
Whole tone music
Whole tone music is based on the whole tone scale. This is a scale made up of whole tones only, eg. C D E F#
G# A# C. Melodies built on the whole tone scale sound hazy or misty. The chords (harmonies) built on the whole
tone scale are also unconventional and colourful (different) sounding. A composer who used the whole tone scale
quite a lot was Debussy. He is also known for being influenced by Indonesian Gamelan music (see the page on
Minimalism for an explanation of Gamelan). Debussy’s use of pedal points (like a drone – the same note is held
or continually repeated while other parts change) and ostinato give his music the ‘cyclical’ feeling created by
repetition in Gamelan music.
Microtonal music
Microtonal music uses notes that fall inbetween the notes on a keyboard. This means it can use intervals that are
smaller than a semitone. Microtonal music is mostly created using electronic instruments and computers. The
exact tuning of notes that fall between the semitones can be programmed.
Serial music
Serial music (composer: Schoenberg) is built on a scale called a 12 tone row. The tone row consists of one of
each of the 12 notes on the keyboard. This is how the tone row is used to create a composition:
1. The 12 chromatic notes (notes that are a semitone apart) are arranged in a specific order, called the Prime
Order or 12 tone row.
2. The notes of the Prime Order are rearranged in the following ways to create a piece of music:
Retrograde (backwards)
Inversion (mirror image). Intervals going up go down by the same distance - and vice versa.
Retrograde inversion (the backwards version is inverted).
Transposed. The Prime Order would sound the same, but it would start on a different note ie. all notes
would be moved up or down by the same interval / distance.
Vertically. Notes of the tone row are played at the same time. Chords formed in this way are called chord
clusters as the notes are often very close together. The sound is very dissonant (clashing).
Prime Order is used as melody or bass line and in any octave.
Pulse and rhythm in the 20th century
Serial music, Whole tone music, Microtonal music, Atonal music and Bitonal music sound different to conventional
Western Art Music not only because of the scale or tuning system on which each is based. Composers of these
types of music also often used an unconventional system of rhythm and meter (timing). Music in free time has no
time signature and music in irregular time uses irregular time signatures (eg 5/4 or 7/4) or has the time signature
changed regularly (sometimes every bar).