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  • Help with Atonal Harmony

    I hate the term but I suppose that is what most would call it. Granted the easy answer is to just listen and study the scores but unlike tonal or even post romanticism like Wagner where the chords still have a tonal relationship despite how the composer might bend and misuse them. The point is that there is a framework which makes it quite comfortable. My goal is to really be able to reproduce some more dissonant harmony I wouldn't perhaps call atonal, perhaps neo classical but the likes of prokofiev , Shastakovich, Mussorgsky. I was listening to some Jerry Goldsmith , poltergeist (shit movie, great score) and the harmony palette was wonderful weaving from complete chaos to comfortable tonality. I am curious as to wether there is a framework you can build upon or do these composers just figure out certain chord successions that give an effect. Do they use set theory or any sort of serialist approach ? I've been brushing up on jazz theory and I find that scale theory and the use of chords and substitutions is helping as the chords tend to not follow the tonic predominant dominant paradigm. I am doing a masters in composition so I am fairly literate in things theoretical so don't worry about being technical. I would love some help to find a way or process to dissect these colours other than just copying and internalizing.

  • May I ask at what university you did your undergraduate composition degree, where are you studying for your Masters, and is it a M.A. or M.Phil.? Thanks.


  • DId my undergrad in piano performance at Julliard and just finished my masters in composition at Mcgill MMUS in montreal. I've been thru the gambit of theory books concerning post tonal vocabulary but still , I find it very cumbersome to have these sounds in my head before going to paper like I can for tonal. I basically use the piano and play chords that distort the tonal centre and try to move the voices I suppose like lines of counterpoint. Mcgill is known for its atonal program but they are very much into serialism which I just never liked. I do believe that these colours can be arranged and produce sounds that can be internalized and from repetition , you can develop a vocabulary. Any personal philosophies welcome.

  • Quick answer: It would be useful to you to differentiate between harmonic styles and histories, I'm somewhat surprised they did not emphasize such notions at Juilliard: Wagner is a romantic, (not post- as say Reger, Strauss, etc.); similarly, Mussorgsky is part of the Russian romantic nationalism, not neo-classicism (and these two are very different!). I don't mean all this as censure towards you, but you would not have these questions if you read a little less, and listened quite a bit more. If you did, you would be able to pick periods of music and harmonic systems easier I believe. 

    Anyway, Goldsmith just uses a lot of discords freely during the terror-scenes, but 95% of the music in the film is tonal if memory serves. I think you're confusing atonality with chromaticism, but the music of the film in question, if I remember correctly is still only slightly chromatic (compared to, say Stravinsky). A good book about the development of harmony in the last 100 years, is '20th Century Harmony' by Vincent Persichetti. It's not what you'd call current, but for you and the periods you mention up until the '60s I think would serve you well! Even more fundamentally, Piston's or Schoenberg's relevant books would help you a lot. Forget set-theories, integral serialism, and jazz from a theoretical point of view, until you know your Mussorgsky from your Shostakovich comfortably.

    I hope this helps.


  • you are right and I probably did not express myself well, I did just list a bunch of composers I am studying at the moment unrelated to my request. The problem is that there really are not that many of the classics that do atonal that I particularly enjoy but I find alot of the older film scores have some great stuff. The goldsmith one is quite atonal with the tonal theme making up about 10% of the score. It doesn't employ roaming harmony as you say which I have quite a good grasp on. Again I hate that word atonal as it doesn't quite describe what is actually going on. I do know the difference between harmonic styles and the historic events related but I suppose my ability to communicate is rather bad. I would have to disagree on Mussorgsky as well as most of the russians being part of the romantic school. Definitely has a tonal center but not tonal in the sense of dominant resolution being of importance not to mention they looked to Stravinsky who was part of the neo classicals which I mentioned earlier. At times , they have those dissonances you see overused in horror flicks but even then when it is rather based on some tonal center , the chord do not follow the normal tonal paradigm. I've memorized Piston and Schoenberg's book and they are rather rudimentary and not much help for anything but text book early romanticism which I am trying to get away from. A few things in Schoenberg's book regarding church modes to account for secondary dominants is rather silly but oh well. A different way at looking at something I suppose. Right now , I just play cluster chords or a set of tones that sound dissonant but it is hard to hear those in your head and I would like to be in a position where I don't need a piano to score which I can easily do for tonal. Thanks for the words tho. I feel like a dufus for confusing such things.

  • I said Mussorgsky was a romantic nationalist (Russia), not a romantic in a Schumann-sense. Sure, his penchant for the declamation of his language and his bold voice-leading and inspiration made him a pioneer, but in the grand scheme of things, 'Pictures at an Exhibition', 'Night on Bald Mountain' and 'Boris', all belong in the grand and supremely varied Romantic school. It just isn't Tchaikovsky.

    I listened to some 'Poltergeist' today for I wanted to see whether I remembered it correctly and, like I said, the score ranges from happy-lullaby tonal, to angry-anxious chromatic, but still very much TONAL. Don't let some discords or quasi sound-mass effects throw you. And 'Atonality' as a term is not any more inappropriate than the terms 'Neo-Classical', 'Modern', 'Spectral', etc. All conventions that would be thrown out the window of any proper scientific university school save for the deliberately vague, all-embracing one of Humanities (as opposed to what?...)


  • I suppose it would be tonal in that there are tonal centers but those dissonant sections don't seem to fit at all in any way within some framework unlike lets say chromatic romantic harmony which in essence is simple tonal harmony mixed with roaming voice leading. When I listen to these sections, there seems to be no relation other than colour and this is what I am looking to get better at. Do composers that use these techniques draw upon a vocabulary like composers do for tonality or is it more a situation where the composer sits at the piano and plays discords until the right colour is found ? My ultimate goal is just to be able to have these resources in my head so I don't have to rely on a piano and trial and error. Of course just like learning tonal harmony, a certain level of trial and error is required to internalize the framework and how harmony weaves in and around it but is it possible with the type of harmony that seems not so easily bound by a framework.

  •  Do composers that use these techniques draw upon a vocabulary like composers do for tonality or is it more a situation where the composer sits at the piano and plays discords until the right colour is found ? 

    I think this is a "different strokes for different folks" situation. I think it also depends a lot on what sort atonal language is being used (and there are a lot of different kinds, obviously). Some are definitely more ordered and some are more improvisatory  - Boulez wasn't thinking about color when he wrote "Structures", and neither was Cage in "Music of Changes", but it was very important to, lets say, late period Morton Feldman, whose work at the time was all about sonority. 

    BadOrange, do you like the works of Henry Cowell? 

    I feel like it would be impossible to study that score and not come away with a better knowledge of atonal color


  • Most of everything has been about a composer "sitting at the piano and play discords until the right colour is found", and you can get such effects with open tonality so long as you include a few minor 2nds, major 7ths (in minor keys) and augmented 4th/5th chords in your harmony. However, a lot of this has been systematized and still has little (if not nothing) to do with atonality. That's why I recommended the Persichetti book to you with its chapters on quartal, quintal, compound harmonies, bi/tri/polytonal, bi/tri/polymodal chordal structures, etc. Goldsmith (except in 'Freud') and most other film composers just use free - that's why it sounds unrelated - chromaticism for moments of tension, but almost always within simple tonal structures.


  • By the way BadOrange, how do you like McGill? I'm sending in my application on December 15th for their MM program :)


  • lots of talented musicians and one of NA best recording programs with state of the art recording equipment ( they just finished building a 90 million $ building ) so lots of opportunities to get your music played and recorded. On the other hand, like most academic composers, they are completely narrow minded in what they consider what music you should be making and they will try to impose that on you. Most people say to go where there is a composer you want to learn from but I honestly found most of them to be quite hardheaded and jaded. It seems every composer that comes out of there is transformed into some pompous serialist that things panning sounds with max msp is highbrow art. They tend to teach their style as opposed to composition which should not really depend on a particular genre but they really do strong arm you. I liked the opportunities for recording my music, I disliked the teachers but I didn't care as the best teachers can be found with a score and seeing as many live performances as possible. I also had a scholarship so it was really a few more years to work on my craft and delay that feeling of having to work somewhere.

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    @Another User said:

    On the other hand, like most academic composers, they are completely narrow minded in what they consider what music you should be making and they will try to impose that on you.

    Thank God I'm not the only one who thinks the same.

    I found academia to be a morass of intellectual chimps who were just so full of themselves.  It became clear to me that these "professors" were more interested in impressing each other at cocktail parties then they were teaching anything.  Any foolish mortal dumb enough to actually question the "masters of self loathing" were ridiculed and, in my case, asked to leave because I was taking the place of a more talented student that needs to be saved from him or her self.  I was a lost cause.

    Mike if you have it within yourself to suffer through like all of the other students at these academic concentration/re-education camps then I wish you the best in your educational endeavors.  Try to grow some wings because you'll need them to stay above the BS. 


  • We have a professor in my family and I can say without trepidation or any sort of biased, that your description of the average professor is completely correct. Don't forget that most of these people are basically public sector workers that should put to the sword. Do I mean that metaphorically? No - I mean actually put to the sword. 

    [:D]


  • the caliber of musicians you get to work with, best in NA along with the recording opportunities does make the school quite a great place to learn despite the professors you must endure. I honestly can't think of any other place in NA where such talent in all areas from recording to performing are all in one spot in an educational facility. I really found just going to all the student recitals for each instrument learning what each instrument can do, seeing all the orchestra performances as well as having your own material performed by extremely good players which is perhaps the only way you will ever learn to orchestrate properly extremely worthwhile. Despite the downs , I enjoyed it and learnt alot and I suppose it was free so I can't complain. And yes, it doesn't mean a thing on a resume but that is neither here nor there. The city is also great and extremely cheap.

  • "Contemporary Harmony - Romanticism through the Twelwe-Tone Row" by Ludmila Uhlela (Advance Music) is a very good book with lots of examples.

    Persichetti is also a good book. (I saw someone recommended this one previous)

    We used both when I studied at the conservatory.


  • PaulP Paul moved this topic from Orchestration & Composition on