A Brief Comment on a Common Objection to Atonality

Like so many other classical music lovers, musicians, and bloggers, I too am impressed by the new book by Alex Ross, “The Rest is Noise”, and am enjoying this perceptive, engaging and big spirited work.  But I would like to comment on a suggestion or appraisal made in the book concerning the deep difficulties a listener faces with Schoenbergian atonality — and I don’t dispute for a second that many fair minded listeners have difficulties with Schoenberg and his atonal colleagues and progeny. Schoenberg understood this as well. This is the passage I find problematical:

“The source of the {Schoenbergian} scandal is not hard to divine; it has to do with the physics of sound. Sound is a trembling of the air, and it affects the body as well as the mind. This is the import of Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, which tries to explain why certain intervals attack the nerve endings while others have a calming effect. At the head of Helmholtz’s rogue’s gallery of intervals was the semitone, which is the space between any two adjacent keys on a piano. Struck together, they create rapid “beats” that distress the ear — like an irritating flash of light, Helmholtz says, or a scraping of the skin. ..similar roughnesses are created by the major seventh, slightly narrower than the octave, and by the minor ninth, slightly wider. These are precisely the intervals that Schoenberg emphasizes in his music.”

Most composers know nothing of acoustics, and don’t care to know anything about it, because they intuitively understand that the effect of any given interval or harmony is so contextual that the remoteness of any given overtone from the fundamental note is comparatively meaningless. The evolution of harmony teaches us this… compare Renaissance polyphony with a Clementi sonatina, or Gesauldo with early minimalism, or even Chopin with Tchaikovsky and the nexus between style and intervallic content becomes apparent. Phrases such as Helmholtz’s “distress the ear”, “calming” and “irritating” sound amateurish and possibly philistine, and the attempt to quantify a listener’s aesthetic perception scientifically is an old and fruitless game.  It seems depressingly clinical, as well. And whose ears are we talking about? Professionals? the public at large? I’d like to trade ears with Pierre Boulez. You can’t tell me that Boulez perceives a minor ninth the way your Uncle Marty does.

Schoenberg emphasizes relatively remote harmonic relationships.  So does Debussy. So do certain Jazz musicians. So does Ravel. So does Varese. So does my beloved Milhaud. But these relationships are as “natural” as any of the more obviously primary relationships. It’s a question of vocabulary and syntax.

Schoenberg’s music is difficult because he eliminates a hierachical relationship between sonorities and is relentlessly contrapuntal, and because he rarely repeats things.  Some of his tonal works, such as the First String Quartet and the First Chamber Symphony, are as hard for the novice as the atonal pieces. I promise you, the First Quartet is more difficult than the exquisitely clear neo-classic Third Quartet, for instance.

A major reason why Schoenberg is so difficult, therefore, is not that he was the “liberator of the dissonance”, but because he was the “eliminator of the dissonance”…providing of course, that we apply the proper (natural) context for the workings of his admittedly esoteric and complex vocabulary. 

To read excerpts from The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross, visit Alex’s blog. Alex also has links to listen to some of the works he discusses in the book.