Neil Newton on the harmonic structure of atonal music

I attended a fascinating and illuminating lecture by Neil Newton at the University of Pittsburgh with the title The Inner Life of Harmonies: An Examination of the Middle Voice in Pop, Classical, and Early Post-Tonal Music.

The big question I’ve sometimes asked myself is, what is atonal music anyway? How do we make sense of it?

Neil Newton provided what seemed to me an interesting explanation.

Atonal music is not random but has order!

I’m very interested in atonal music because of how, when successful, when I enjoy it and it somehow “makes sense” (which it does not always), it falls between the boundaries of order and chaos, like a dream. Also, I should emphasize that I like to make a clear distinction between truly atonal music and the serial (twelve-tone) music that Schönberg invented after he became dissatisfied with his atonal experiments. Serial music, unlike atonal music, is very strictly organized through a mathematical system; atonal music was its “freer” predecessor.

I don’t listen much to atonal music, but there is some atonal music I have mentioned enjoying, by Schönberg. So it was with great interest that I attended this lecture trying to explain how atonal music can be understood not as being devoid of traditional harmonic relationships, but rather as embodying a different kind of relationship, a different kind of order. It is not random or chaotic, just ordered differently.

Substitution of a different kind of order

The main idea Newton explored was that of finding a replacement for the dominant-tonic relationship that is key in tonal music for “tension and resolution” or “charge and discharge” (his preferred terminology). For example, he argues that the interval of a tritone (ic6) in conjunction with voice leading can be used to generate functional movement and therefore build up structural significance that is analogous to the kind of structure significance that exists in tonal music.

Particularly interesting to me was how Newton used statistical analysis to look for correlations and patterns in the music he studied and justify his thesis.

Also, he unifies his ideas with application to other “weird” musical phenomenon, such as that found in many pop and rock songs that violate the traditional tonal system. (The music of the Beatles, for example, was quite marked in its oddity.)

For details, check out Newton’s paper, “An Aspect of Functional Harmony in Schoenberg’s Early Post-Tonal Music”. I don’t pretend to understand more than a fraction of what he tries to show, since I am just an amateur musician, not a trained theorist, but the overview and audio examples he gave in his lecture gave me a glimpse of what he’s doing, and I was happy to have attended.

(Update of 2014-05-28)

The Pitt music department blog just mentioned Newton’s work and provided a link to an enhanced HTML version of his paper.


I think it’s great that serious work continues in trying to understand what lies underneath music that we intuitively enjoy but find odd because it doesn’t obey the usual expectations of traditional tonality.

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