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  1. For many living composers, the response to this question might be something like: "Short answer, 'no' with an 'if,' long answer, 'yes' with a 'but.'" But before we start assigning labels, let's discuss what terms like "tonal" and "atonal" really mean. "Atonal music" in its narrowest usage refers to those works of composers Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Anton Webern (1883-1945), and Alban Berg (1885-1935), composed in or after the second decade of the Twentieth Century, and pre-dating all three composers' adoption of the twelve-tone technique. Berg once attributed the coinage of the term "atonal" to the words of a newspaper critique, and the term itself has long since carried certain pejorative connotations. Another, somewhat broader definition, includes both these works and works of music composed using the twelve-tone technique. This technique was pioneered by Schoenberg and others in the 1920's, and was soon adopted by Webern, Berg, and later numerous composers of serious music in Europe and throughout the world of Western music composition. A third, broader still definition, includes all music in which tonal centers are sufficiently ambiguous. Under this definition, many works by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bartók, Shostakovich, and others are sometimes described as "atonal." This third definition is perhaps the most widely used, but also the most problematic. The term is not commonly applied, for example to noise music; nor music for unpitched percussion instruments; music composed using elements of chance and aleatory techniques; experimental music; microtonal music; or other forms of musical expression falling outside the dominion of Western art music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Its usefulness as an aesthetic term must therefore be seriously called into question. What is "tonal music"? The term as used today broadly refers to music composed with tonal centers, or one or more focal pitches considered "stable" with regard to the others. Often this also means the use of familiar harmonic patterns, or "harmonic progressions," typical of the music of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The term as used today, though, perhaps only exists usefully as an antithesis to "atonal music"; as conventionally defined it does not include non-Western musics, nor Western music composed before the Mature Baroque, and its application in folk music traditions or popular styles is highly suspect. The one thing that all of these various definitions have in common is their emphasis on composer intent. "Atonal" and "tonal" do not necessarily represent meaningful expressions of listener experience, in my opinion, which I believe should be a part of any meaningful discourse about music. Instead, I advocate the adjudication of any musical expression on its own terms, in its own proper context, and with the use of descriptive terms such as "plaintive," "haunting," "lyrical," "energetic," etc. Needless to say, any discussion of music on these terms will be subjective to a greater or lesser extent; but the search for absolute, objective truths in a pursuit as rich as music will always lead to a dead end. A quote from the author George Orwell, originally written with regard to various conflicting philosophies of government in the Twentieth Century, seems uncannily appropriate if the words "tonal" and "atonal" are substituted for the terms "democracy" and "fascism": Leave a comment below and click here to continue the discussion!
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