Tonality is Not Dead!


Weaving a slender (and unfortunately spider silk strong), filament through many forums is a prejudice that is all too common in academic music circles… 

The history of music is a messy diversity of compositional practices that a significant minority of musicians still try and compress into a single historical mainstream. 

They talk of streams and tributaries and then dam them up; they discuss various smaller side branches off the main trunk and then fetch the saw from the garden shed… their main river flows smoothly on…their tree continues to grow straight up towards the sky. 

These accounts of musical ‘evolution’ often ignore various historical discontinuities and divergent practices – these are dismissed as inconsequential departures from the main current. Their words tend to privilege later forms of harmonic phenomena – described as more ‘advanced’; ‘more complex’. 

They give preferential treatment to the new and the original…In relation to their contemporaries, Chopin = progressive; Rachmaninov = regressive. 

AND, OF COURSE… Atonal music is judged as more complicated and more difficult than tonal music and therefore more worthy of critical attention. 

NONSENSE!!! Schoenberg wrote that the journey towards increasing dissonance was an emancipation of musical resources…a quest in search a Holy Grail…a Utopian Zukunftsmusik, (sorry Richard Wagner).   Funnily enough, others warned of an impending atonal apocalypse!!! (They were also off-target).    

These blinkered musicologists have a simplistic, linear view of musical history and they often connect it strongly and directly to evolution and other biological factors…   They use words such as ‘continuous progress’ ‘selection’ and ‘adaptation’ and talk of forces at work within music that are analogous to the development of an organism…   They refer to the energetic tendencies of the semitone and the mutation of modality into tonality; the metamorphosis of tonality into atonality.   NONSENSE!!! 

Applying evolutionary concepts to cultural phenomena is ridiculous, inane, asinine, stupid……….very silly! 

Tonality is alive and kicking…it has not collapsed, worn out or broken down from over-use! Neither has modality for that matter and it was ‘branching’ off into what we now call tonality a long time ago! 

Hopefully atonality will also continue to thrive! 

Trumpets, violins, Fairlights,  Moogs – they’re all just tools and all very useful in their own way. 

Berg, Scelsi, Xenakis, Ligeti, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, Genesis… You don’t have to choose sides – appreciate and enjoy them all…I do!