Atonality in music is the lack of adherence to a tonal center for the duration of a piece or section. Tonal music functions within the framework of a specific key and the modes that are derived from it. Atonal music is an attempt at breaking away from this framework and making the relationship between notes far more liminal, transitory, and low-level. The seven notes of the diatonic scale hold a special, physical consonance to the human ear and mind when sounded against each other in fixed configurations; atonal philosophy, however, considers all twelve pitches or notes of the chromatic scale as equally legitimate, and revels in the interplay between them. In doing so, it upends the listener’s expectations of being grounded in a readily recognizable environment, surprising him with fresh challenges at every turn.
Atonality in music is closely linked to theories of serialism that began circulating in early twentieth century Europe. Serialism is atonality taken to its logical extreme, its most renowned exponent being Arnold Schoenberg and his equally illustrious school of disciples. Serialism is a musical-mathematical premise based on the principle of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. These notes, in a starting arrangement of the composer’s choosing, together comprise what is called the tone-row. The main thrust of serialism in music is to circulate through the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and to not repeat any one of them before the entire series has been completed. Different mathematical operations like retrograde, inversion, and retrograde-inversion are applied to the original tone-row to come up with additional tone-rows. Essentially, these mathematical operations serve to subtly change the configuration of the original scale, therefore adding more color and variety to the music in which they are employed.
Josef Matthias Hauer, an Austrian composer and music theorist from the era, was one of the first to elaborate on such matters. According to Hauer, music achieves its true multi-dimensional fulfillment on the mental-spiritual plane. A composer conceptualizes music in his head, and then translates it to the best of his abilities on to an instrument. However, like the Platonic forms (the circle, for example) which have no real existence outside the mind, this transfer of music from the composer’s mind to the material realm is at best an approximation. The onus then falls on the listener to “reassemble” this crude, material musical form back into something accurately resembling what the composer may have initially visualized. The degree to which the listener succeeds in doing so is related directly to how his perception interacts with his innate intuition, further to which lie his talents of absorption and assimilation.
In Hauer’s opinion, all music consists of two chief components, rhythm and melody. The two as pertaining to music can be imagined in terms of a continuum, where rhythm occupies one end and melody the other. All music would then naturally fall somewhere along this sliding-scale, depending on the predominance of one or the other component. Hauer says that the element of rhythm represents the material aspect of music, while melody denotes the spiritual and thus holds the more noble position in this two-fold dynamic. Any two notes sounded in succession by default are imbued with an element of rhythm, for the duration between the notes, however protracted or attenuated, by default lends them a temporal character.
Hauer was an early proponent of twelve-tone serialism, and in its defense executes what, to me, seems like a circuitous leap of faith. Hauer says that tonality by definition subordinates all other notes to one overriding pitch, or key, and therefore establishes the rhythmic component of his rhythm-melody bifurcation as the predominant element. Twelve-tone serialism, on the other hand, by circulating over all twelve pitches without bias creates a musical environment which is overwhelmingly melodic and therefore spiritual. Atonality, to Hauer, then, triumphs over tonality as a purer, more undiluted expression of music.
To me, atonal passages in music register greater impact when they are grounded in a sea of tonality. Perhaps a third element to be added to Hauer’s rhythm-melody scale is contrast. Contrast is of the utmost importance as a navigational aid for the listener. What creates contrast is, paradoxically enough, a sense of verisimilitude. One needs to be acquainted with familiarity to appreciate the little changes in color when that familiarity is abruptly rooted out; without that familiarity, there is no exhilaration at encountering something alien, nor is there any longing to return to home pastures.
Death metal presents a fascinating example of atonality in metal. Death metal subscribes to a tangentially-related take on atonality. While death metal has no explicit, theoretical dogma about it, it also shows no favor to tonality or the role of chord progressions of popular music. Death metal works on the level of the riff, so it is natural for the style to have certain ideas repeating through the course of a song. But the composition of the riff itself, as can be heard clearly in the case of bands like Deeds Of Flesh, Immolation, Averse Sefira, and Crimson Massacre, involves the use of a sort of abridged tone-row, where the riff cycles through a series of notes from the chromatic scale without discrimination.
Come to think of it, “without discrimination” is the wrong choice of words. Good death metal cares greatly about riff closure, expressed through a tonal concept of a return to the riff’s tonic or root. One is almost tempted to say that death metal creates tonality out of atonality, and this wouldn’t be an entirely inaccurate way of surmising the genre’s spectrum-skewing musical philosophy. Innovation occurs at the micro level and in terms of arrangement, however the bridge between the two is repetitive. This concept of the refrain, so long as it communicates something tangible, is of far greater importance to death metal, in fact, to all metal, than any ascetic denial through obsession with note choices.