Atonal music is music that isn’t written in a key, music that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of harmony. But although the term “atonal” tells us what a piece isn’t, it doesn’t tell us what it is. Many different styles and musical languages, whether harsh or lush, cool or intense, simple or complex can be described as atonal.
Tonal music unfolds with a built-in logic established by centuries of development. But composers writing in atonal languages must create their own logic, and that’s difficult to do. When it’s done badly, the music seems incoherent at best, unpleasant or annoying at worst… and we feel that our time, so precious to us, has been wasted. When it’s done well, the logic makes itself understood, and the atonal musical language, though perhaps unfamiliar, becomes comprehensible and convincing. We hear patterns that make sense, patterns that can lead to drama, narrative, and emotional impact.
A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.