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Why Is This A Debate Anyway? (The Dichotomy Of Tonal Vs. Atonal)

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It seems that anytime you get classical musicians or composers together on an online forum the topic, or really the flame inducing debate, of atonal vs. tonal music comes up. Though atonal music (or to use the more inclusive term post-tonal) has been around for about 100 years, there seems to be no end to the number of pages of post, rebuttals, counter arguments, and comments these threads generate. This "debate" goes far beyond just threads about the topic. Any mention of atonality vs. tonality anywhere near classical music (i.e. comment section on articles, youtube videos, and Facebook post) there are many fervent commentators ready to start the back and forth on this issue. This dichotomy is also present in real life situations. The near decade I have been in college I have seen this debate divide schools of music. While other professors advocate new music, others go as far as forbidding or refusing to teach new music to their students. There are even books and scholarly journal articles that pit the two against each other. 

But this thread isn't about the merits of tonality and atonality, this thread is about the why. 

It appears on the surface that there is no reason to not like both. It is very reminiscent of many other dichotomies in pop culture:

Star Wars vs. Star Treck

West Coast Rap vs. East Coast Rap

Marvel vs. DC

Beetles vs. Rolling Stones

Band Geeks vs. Orchestra Dork vs. Choir Nerds

 

Why is this such a hot button issue in the music world (be it mostly online music world)? What is gained through these debates? What does engaging in this debate say about us? Does this dichotomy expose our insecurities about our own music, or show our need to be superior by tearing down the styles of others? Or is it just human nature to simplify a complex issue like post-tonality and reduce it down to a binary?

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I think it boils down to a sort of "intellectual superiority complex" which is prevelent on the internet, especially in the venues you mention. You'll notice that in real conversations between actual musicians in real-life settings these debates rarely are had or are amicable and tasteful if they are. But the internet strips the personal away and people are able to just trumpet their own point of view with no regard to anyone else. So debates like tonality vs atonality are ripe for exploitation in this context. The "atonalists" often feel intellectually superior because they understand this grand technique that very few people understand and certainly the general public at large doesn't understand or like. They are the elite of the composers, the "best" of the classical music world and should be respected because they like atonality, dammit! Then you have the tonalists who hate anything that isn't tonal, and it becomes comical how each group fights the other. It reminds me a great deal of atheists and theists battling it out, as if atonality and tonality were fundamental philosophies on life and living! Of course, when I was younger and more naive I think I believed this to an extent. But through learning about atonality more and learning about how tonality isn't just I-IV-V-I, I began to appreciate the need for both, especially as a composer. Generally speaking I don't like atonality, I don't listen to it for pleasure (most of the time!  :musicwhistle: ) but I can understand it and really dig into why it exists as a valid form of expression for an artist. And that's the goal of any discussion, eh? Understanding. I wish some other musicians would learn that, but of course that takes a lot of work and its simply easier sticking to your own POV and posting a YouTube comment.

 

Sith agrees too:  :sith:

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In my own experience, people are more open -minded towards the music of their colleagues, acquaintances, etc. rather than that of some stranger. There is definitely an intellectual superiority complex, but I think it (for the most part), exists in the perception of whoever is doing the criticizing. For example: 'oh this music is abstract, whoever wrote it must think they're a smartypants'. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of terrible music written today, there is honest music to be found though and this gets easier to hear with experience. 

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People's reactions to more modern styles of music are often heavily and viscerally negative, due to the lack of exposure of such styles in popular culture. It's easy to trust that initial reaction and dismiss it all as garbage instead of than putting in the effort to get what it's all about. It's also easy to make fun of people that do make these broad dismissals on the internet.

 

It's just sad that it happens today in real life academia, though. The professors at my school encourage openness to all styles of music and don't fall into traditional or progressive camps, and the thought of it being any different seems really alien to me.

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It's fun to debate it online because it's like other political issues that are almost so dumb they're fun. Like homosexuality or whether it's better to be a republican or democrat or now a new one whether you think the police are using excessive force or just doing their jobs.

 

Like what the other composers in the room have said: it comes down to quality, which quality is a kind of subjective thing because if it's of quality that means that you are most apt to enjoy it the best and when it comes to all of our psyches, it's our state of mind and attitude that's going to change the way we hear a piece of music.

 

I love atonal music, I love it more than tonal, but only because I don't think tonality really exists it's just atonal music with chords and highly malleable structure. There are keys of pieces and tonal centers of pieces but those are nothing more than suns which planets orbit around. The same kind of relationships also exist in atonal music however like Scelsi which in his music he does manipulate tonal centers in drone like ways or Bach/Wagner where the tonal center can be continuously modulating, this malleable art of music is most profound, by far the profoundest of all musics.

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I used to be extremely conservative in my tastes and at one point considered atonality a "cop out" for composers who could not write good music based on established tonal convention and had to cloak their inadequacies in the name of being avant-garde and modern, thumbing their nose at those who just didn't "get" their music.  I still think many composers do fall into this category (John Cage for example, sorry any Cage fans out there) and through my university years as a music major, I generally ignored any music written after 1945 as complete trash (largely to my detriment).  I've broadened my own horizons so I can definitely appreciate the inherent beauty of good atonal music (Alban Berg for example, I consider a great composer, Prokofiev's atonal music is transcendent) and certainly there is lots of bad tonal music as well.  In the end though, it's purely based on subjective elements so there's really no way to come to a true resolution.

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Star Wars vs. Star Treck

West Coast Rap vs. East Coast Rap

Marvel vs. DC

Beetles vs. Rolling Stones

Band Geeks vs. Orchestra Dork vs. Choir Nerds

 

OK, so let's move on and discuss why Coke owns Pepsi. And coming soon, The Hunger Games vs. Divergent?

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