Schönberg, Modernism, and Meaning in Music


Joseph Dillon Ford

Schoenberg Self-Portrait


I have heard many a good musician, when listening to Beethoven's Great Fugue, cry out: "This sounds like atonal music. . . ."

Intoxicated from the enthusiasm of having freed music from the shackles of tonality, I had thought to find further liberty of expression. . . .

Forty years have since proved that the psychological basis of all these changes was correct.

—Arnold Schönberg, "My Evolution," in Style and Idea

I think it's especially paradoxical that modernists, for all their railing against the "shackles" of tradition (tonality), so desperately wanted to establish traditions of their own. It seems to me that if tradition were such a bad thing, they should not only have renounced it entirely but also should have avoided contributing anything to it in the slightest. After all, wasn't modernism about breaking away from the past—what Duchamp called "that prison of tradition"—and making everything continuously new?

But as we have seen, dodecaphony, once established, became the reigning tradition among "serious" composers of the late twentieth century, while tonality was demoted to the status of an all but useless relic. Though music academics tend to deny they ever set out to impose any modernist agenda, where better to look for evidence that the Schönbergian tradition had been willfully and firmly implanted in higher education than a textbook intended to pass down the twelve-tone orthodoxy to composition students? Thus wrote composer-academic Charles Wuorinen in Simple Composition (1979):

While the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers, it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.

Traditions, of course, can either enslave or enfranchise, and should be avoided or embraced depending on their individual merits. Racism and religious intolerance are traditions that deserve no more than to be documented in history books and certainly ought not to play any active role in our lives today. Language and mathematics, on the other hand, embody intellectual traditions so vital to the survival and continued development of our species that we could hardly hope to function without them.

But what about the traditions of tonal musical form and style? Has tonality become as abhorrently obsolete for us today as the institution of slavery? This is certainly what Schönberg's "shackles" metaphor implies. Did his "emancipation of the dissonance" really free composers from an oppressive, superannuated system of musical organization or did it succeed only in exchanging imaginary shackles for fetters that seriously constrained music as a communicative art?


For all his revolutionary rhetoric, Schönberg himself did not consciously set out to repress tonality, and even continued to compose tonal music after promulgating his most radical theoretical ideas. His mastery of tonal idioms has never been in question, and he was beyond doubt a theorist of great distinction. I do believe, however, that while attempting to carve an impressive niche for himself in the pantheon of music history, he made some serious errors in judgment and ultimately fell prey to his own propaganda. He failed to fully appreciate the fact that music, like language, depends for its success on familiar, readily recognizable patterns. Far from impeding our understanding and enjoyment of the art of sound, tradition and convention constitute the very foundation on which appreciation and comprehension rest.

Schönberg's successors were more militant. Aggressively promoting dodecaphony and even more radical forms and extremes of serialization, the twelve-tone troops of the avant-garde achieved one succès de scandale after another and went on to establish a beachhead in Academe that enabled them to secure influential lifelong posts as tenured professors and administrators. Although they managed in this capacity to indoctrinate generations of impressionable young minds, they ultimately failed to win the trust and respect of the music-loving public. Citizen Concertgoer simply could not be persuaded that transit through the musical landscape would be vastly improved by replacing old-fashioned round wheels—those ever-familiar circles of fourths and fifths—with new state-of-the-art twelve-sided ones that tended to roll bumpingly and thumpingly right into the heart of Twilight Zone. Indeed, atonal travel of the serial variety proved to be such a rough and wrenching affair that even today the mere mention of "new music" is more likely to summon up feelings of dislocation and motion sickness than treasured memories of inspired and inspiring soundscapes.

Let's imagine for a moment that a prominent international cadre of authors and scholars aggressively promoted the idea that all truly "creative" poetry and prose should henceforth be written in an ingenious new artificial language of their own invention which they claimed was the inevitable result of cultural "evolution." Although this new linguistic system had little more in common with conventional language than the letters of the alphabet, in time, they reasoned, literate people would come not only to understand it fully but also to appreciate the superior advantages it had to offer. Decades passed, however, and despite the best efforts of the writers, academicians, progressive literary arts organizations, and publishers, the new language never caught on with the reading public. Even those who made the effort to master its unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary found that, after all was said and done, this new form of expression actually communicated nothing fundamentally more important or better than traditional literary language. Indeed, its very novelty and complexity continued to set up such insurmountable obstacles to usage and comprehension that after nearly a century efforts to promote the new language were gradually abandoned.

Of course nothing of the sort ever really happened. Although some twentieth-century authors did push language beyond the brink of intelligibility, modern writers on the whole evidently realized that innovation had its limits and couldn't be treated as an end in itself without running the risk of undermining the very basis and reason for their craft. Twentieth-century literary language, for all its novel twists and turns, continued to make sense because it didn't reject the most basic linguistic conventions necessary to convey meaning to its readers. Words retained their definitions and were arranged in familiar, comprehensible patterns. Even the following excerpt from Joyce's Ulysses is not beyond the grasp of an imaginative adolescent:

Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugar-sticky girl shoveling scoopfuls of creams for a christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies. Lozenge and comfit manufacturer to His Majesty the King. God. Save. Our. Sitting on his throne, sucking red jujubes white.

The case of serial music, however, demonstrates what can happen when the envelope gets pushed so far that it virtually gets torn to shreds. While continuing to profess the importance of comprehensibility, Schönberg and his followers paradoxically set about dismantling the very structures in music responsible for transmitting meaning, chief among them being the system of major and minor keys and modes that had served for centuries as the basis of tonal organization. In some quarters, the serial subversion of tonality gathered such powerful political momentum that a kind of artistic totalitarianism set in under which composers who dared to adopt tonal idioms were censured, ridiculed, or exposed to far more serious consequences adversely affecting their lives and careers. University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Easley Blackwood, a former modernist who turned later in life to tonal and microtonal composition, was the target of just such abuse:

There is a faction of people who believe in the inevitability of the acceptance of the so-called academic modern idiom who are very annoyed at what I am doing. They are out and out hostile. They are trying to make me stop. They are trying to demoralize me. I think they are basically intellectually dishonest. . . .

I don't think they're afraid of it, but it goes contrary to their notion of historical inevitability. They feel that anyone who departs from the Marxian ideal somehow is not only wrong, but reprehensible. But I think they are intellectually dishonest because I can't help but think that if they didn't know when the piece was written, they would have a different response to it. So these people are not so much trying to evaluate the music or enjoy it, or for that matter, criticize it. They are trying to control the direction of music history.

Read Bruce Duffie's "Easley Blackwood: The Composer in Conversation with Bruce Duffie."

It goes without saying that those responsible for this suppression of creative freedom and diversity, many of whom erroneously identify themselves as liberals, continue to pose a real threat to the status of music as a liberal art.


Twentieth-century modernists and their avant-garde, who self-consciously attempted to break with the old in pursuit of the new, seem to have labored under a fundamental misconception about the nature of creativity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America's most original thinkers—and not insignificantly a staunch individualist much admired by composer Charles Ives—expressed one of the most profound but simple artistic truths: "It is inevitable that you are indebted to the past. You are fed and formed by it. The old forest is decomposed for the composition of the new forest."

For Emerson as for Ives, quotation was essential to the creative process: "By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books, and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation."

Through quotation and paraphrase we have developed over millennia a compositional vocabulary and grammar that serve as the basis of a tonal musical language which has achieved virtually universal intelligibility. Recent research based on statistical analysis of keyboard scores by Bach, Mozart, Debussy, and Schönberg conducted by Damian H. Zanette, professor at the Centro Atómico Bariloche and Instituto Balseiro in Argentina, supports the view that music, like language, depends for its meaning on the use and perception of clearly defined patterns analogous to words and phrases that enable us to make sense of what we hear. In "Zipf’s Law and the Creation of Musical Context," Zanette concludes the following:

While the extension of the notion of semantic contents from linguistics to music holds as a metaphoric allegory only, context—whose role in language is closely related to semantics—stands for a significant feature common to linguistic and musical messages. In both domains, context denotes a property emerging from the interaction of the perceptual elements that compose the message, that makes message intelligible as a whole. The nature of the information borne by music differs substantially from that of language. However, the combination of those elements in a hierarchically organised sequence, whose structure sustains its comprehensibility, lies at the basis of the creation of context in the two domains.

Read Damian Zanette's "Zipf’s Law and the Creation of Musical Context."

Read Philip Ball's "Tunes Create Context Like Language," a nontechnical summary of the above.

Comparative analysis revealed that Schönberg's negation of tonality in the first of his Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, resulted in what Zanette describes as "a ductile, unsteady, more tenuously defined context." The result, then, from the listener's perspective, is a degree of instability and ambiguity that borders on the unintelligible, a trend that would become even more pronounced as Schönberg and his followers increasingly distanced themselves from the influences of Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauß, and other late romantic tonal composers.

Even absent Zanette's rigorous statistical evidence, it only stands to reason that when all traditional elements of musical organization are systematically subverted or radically transformed, comprehension for the listener becomes more and more elusive. Once a certain critical point is reached, music ceases to function as a generally intelligible form of human communication and morphs implosively into a kind of idiolalia whose meaning, if any, is discernible only to a handful of initiates. This is precisely the scenario to which arch-serialist Milton Babbit aspired in his infamous "Who Cares if You Listen?"

Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences [mathematics, philosophy, and physics] to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.


Modernism is synonymous with innovation, but the very things in modern music which seem to be the most revolutionary are often no more than the unacknowledged children of a longstanding tradition. Schönberg's early atonality, for example, was not the product of ex nihilo creation but grew directly out of the intentional melodic and harmonic ambiguity that abounds in—but never came to dominate—tonal music. It is akin in other respects to early twentieth-century scores by such composers as Scriabin, Debussy, and Ives in which tonality is at least partially suspended, although its roots can be traced back even further.

Composer Edward Gold recently drew my attention to a very interesting passage in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony where a unison melody incorporating most of the tones of the chromatic scale is set to the following words: "Ihr stürtzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer Welt? Such' ihn über'm Sternenzelt." ("Do you fall violently, O Millions? Do you have a presentiment of the Creator, World? Seek for him above the starry canopy!")

Excerpt from Beethoven's Ninth, finale

Now this highly chromatic passage is by no means arbitrary. At the words "Ihr stürzt nieder," the melody mirrors the text by descending a perfect fourth from f to C. Beginning with the words "Ahnest du," it continuously ascends, again underscoring the meaning of the words. Although the listener's tonal orientation is temporarily challenged by this intense chromaticism, the effect achieved is both mysterious and uplifting. The transient strangeness makes sense because the text explains why the music behaves as it does.

Although there is no specific text in the opening movement of the "Faust" Symphony, Liszt, too, makes effective use of a twelve-tone melody consisting of a descending series of four harmonically unstable augmented triads.

Excerpt from Beethoven's Ninth, finale

Incorporating all the tones of the chromatic scale in this manner suggests Faust's gnawing, all-encompassing hunger for knowledge and experience. The melody is later parodied in the symphony's finale, a portrait of Mephistopheles, whom Goethe called "der Geist der stets verneint" ("the spirit who always negates"). Liszt's quotation of the twelve-tone "Faust" theme here is thus intended to be a mocking reminder of the ruin to which the Evil One has reduced the insatiably ambitious hero of Goethe's poem.

Liszt was not the first to transform a previously stated theme into a hideous likeness of itself: Berlioz did so in the finale of his Symphonie fantastique. More importantly, however, is the fact that both of these composers and Beethoven provided a clear programmatic context that explained the "strangeness" with which they intentionally invested their music. That context succeeded in making accessible to the listener what might otherwise have been construed as gratuitous grotesquerie.

Schönberg's atonal style was derived directly from such melodically disjunct, harmonically ambiguous passages in the music of his predecessors. His atonal pieces were sure to get noticed because they drew on well-established tonal precedents in which extreme chromaticism and dissonance were exploited to conjure up all manner of mysterious, bizarre, or unsettling impressions. His later use of tone rows provided a means of maximizing tonal ambiguity and generating large-scale compositions based on another well-established tradition—theme-and variations technique. For all his pretensions as an innovator, Schönberg was a traditionalist who, like many modernists, was sometimes reluctant to acknowledge his debt to the past and chose, instead, to repackage history under a new name.

But if Schönberg stood on the shoulders of such giants as Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, and Brahms, assimilating their influences and striving to emulate their achievements, why do his name and the names of his most distinguished followers not appear on today's concert programs with anywhere near the same frequency as those of earlier masters? At least a tentative answer seems possible: Whereas Schönberg's predecessors tended to provide some musical, verbal, or programmatic context that explained or justified their excursions into gray areas at the fringes of tonality, Schönberg and his followers felt no such obligation to their listeners. In fact, compiling a shortlist of the most successful Viennese atonal works, including such titles as Schönberg's Pierrot lunaire, Berg's Wozzeck, and the same composer's Lulu, would likely reveal a preponderance of scores heavily dependent on the presence of words or some other conventional semantic component that provides a framework for comprehension (e.g., the quasi-triadic row, Bach chorale quotation, and poignantly commemorative background of Berg's Violin Concerto, dedicated to the "memory of an angel"—Manon Gropius).

Although new tonal scores are still dismissed by modernist critics as "movie music," the fact is that atonality has actually enjoyed what might be its greatest success at the cinema. Indeed, for underscoring scenes of violence, horror, heightened tension, and psychological uncertainty, it can hardly be surpassed. But as "absolute music," unsupported by any elucidative context, serial atonality tends to alienate rather than ingratiate itself with the public. In the end, listeners seem to require at least a modicum of familiarity and/or contextual support to make sense of a score, failing which, they leave a concert feeling befuddled if not betrayed by the composer. Rigorously logical development and the presence of repetitive but often inconspicuous structural devices such as the tone row simply do not seem to be enough.


In light of the above, it seems reasonable to postulate that tonal composition is strongly analogous to the use of a language whose vocabulary, grammar, and other conventional structures ensure a high degree of intelligibility. The very redundancy of tonal patterns builds up a context that listeners find both significant and aesthetically satisfying.

On the other hand, atonal/serial composition, absent some familiar semantic context (e.g., words or images), and to the extent that it actually resists the establishment of readily perceptible patterns to which conventional meanings can be assigned, largely fails as a communicative art form. Comprehensibility requires certain norms, certain aurally perceptible traditional elements like the cadence, diatonic scale, and triad, that resonate with the listeners' collective experience much like words and phrases.

For most musically literate listeners, atonality conveys primarily a sense of uncertainty and unrest because that's what the absence of a well-defined tonal center had already come to signify long before Schönberg ever made it the basis of his atonal style. Since the thrust of modernism has been to reject—or more accurately to obscure—any ties to tradition, and since the "language" of serialism is constantly being reinvented, there seems to be little possibility that atonal music will ever achieve the same degree of semantic clarity and variety that had already been realized by tonal composers before the end of the nineteenth century. I believe it is only by reconnecting with the tonal traditions to which they were heir, gratefully acknowledging the presence of the past and skillfully employing the contents of our collective human memory to engender meaning and nurture a vital sense of community, that composers will once more be able to convince audiences that art music still matters.


Return to Writings Return to Writings

Last updated August 8, 2005
WebMaster: Joseph Dillon Ford,
© Copyright 2005 by Joseph Dillon Ford