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What is Tonality?

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What is Tonality?

Music composition and philosophy share the occasional tendency or need, perhaps, to be perplexed by things that everyone else takes for granted. Take tonality, for example. I can't locate it at the moment, but at the beginning of one of his texts, Schoenberg says that the easiest way to achieve unity in a composition is through tonality. But this does not necessarily mean "tonality" as it is described in a first-year harmony course.

What is tonality? You could argue that any music that organizes structure through pitch is, in some sense, "tonal." Most of Steve Reich's music is tonal as is that, most certainly, of Philip Glass. There have been arguments that a lot of Schoenberg's music is tonal in a very broad sense. Some pieces by Berg likely are. Perhaps some pieces by Ligeti. Certainly music by a great number of 20th century masters from Stravinsky to Shostakovich to Britten to Messiaen. The term "extended tonality" was doubtless coined to describe the many different ways composers have approached tonality. It is no longer, if it ever was, a question of following a fixed set of "rules" governing how tonality must be used. It would be hard to find a composer who didn't break the rules whenever it was necessary or useful--even Haydn and Beethoven!

So we find ourselves on the verge of claiming that any music that organizes pitches is in some sense "tonal." I don't find that terribly problematic, frankly. There are, of course, pieces that are in no sense at all tonal such as this one:


But how could you argue that this piece is not tonal:


Schoenberg fiercely resisted classifying his music as "atonal," he preferred "pantonal" or "music written with twelve-tones equally" or some variation of that. Because certainly his music uses tones in various structural ways. Only a piece without tones could accurately be called "atonal" as a person without a moral sense would be called "amoral."

The two biggest differences between traditional or common practice tonality and extended tonality are first, the tolerance of higher levels of dissonance and second, the organization of pitches in a symmetrical rather than asymmetrical way. If you replace perfect 4ths and 5ths with tritones you make a profound change in harmonic structure by dividing the octave equally. Similarly, if you use an octatonic collection you also divide the octave equally. This leaves it open as to which pitch you choose as a "final." Using the whole-tone scale has a similar effect as we see in Debussy. Incidentally,  Messiaen was referring to these symmetrical pitch collections in his "modes of limited transposition" because, yes, they can only be transposed a limited number of times. Also, a symmetrical rhythmic structure is, in his terminology, "non-retrogradable" because, like a palindrome, is it the same backwards or forwards.

Setting aside the more extreme approaches such as we find in Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, it seems to be mostly true that 20th (and possibly 21st) century composers have taken a myriad of approaches to the tonal organization of music without actually casting aside the idea of tonal organization! Asking the question is a particular piece of music tonal or not is actually a very, very complicated question. For most purposes I am going to answer "uh-huh, probably."

Here is a nice example for you: Renard by Stravinsky. In A. Or "on" A. Or "in the general neighborhood of A".




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