Dodecaphonic music

I met trombonist Milt Bernhart* some years ago and learned that, even at the pinnacle of his career, he would take trombone lessons whenever he was home from touring.

I was impressed by this and noted that humility is an essential part of learning and progress.

My own career has involved writing music in a wide range of styles for an even wider range of instrumentations, ranging from keyboard parts used to provide backing for club and cabaret acts, to full orchestras, including radio orchestras with slimmed-down string sections. 

Much of my time was spent writing for big bands and my compositions for English-style brass bands and brass ensembles sold in many countries.

I also contribute library music of almost every imaginable kind to stock hire companies.

Occasionally, I use atonal interludes in an otherwise tonal setting (as did Scott Bradley, composer of the superb background music to many of the MGM cartoons), mainly to create the sensation of being out of this world. My opinion was, and possibly still is, that usage of this kind is probably the best use of the form. 

Dodecaphonic or ‘twelve-tone’ music is a more rigorous form of atonal music that is written to strict rules. Even now, around a hundred years after Schoenberg published his first composition using this form, dodecaphonic music is still confined to the outer edges of the musical solar system and there is no evidence that it will one day fall into a more local orbit. (Ouch! Sorry about that.)

Nevertheless, mindful of the fact that there is a good deal more to know about this music and also mindful of the achievements, knowledge and talents of those who would disagree with me, I resolved to learn more about the subject. I have to admit that I wasn’t really looking forward to the task. It was something that had to be done, to round off my experiences, if for no other reason.

My own book has sold to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world and has drawn many favourable testimonials (readers in individual countries see only a limited number of these) but I didn’t hesitate to look for guidance in the form of a book by another author. The book I chose was Schoenberg’s Twelve Tone Music by Jack Boss, professor of music theory and composition at the University of Oregon. Bearing in mind that the first edition of my own book took six years to write I can well understand that Jack’s book took shape over a period of twelve years. It’s a monumental achievement that is very heavy going but worth the effort. The depth of analysis in this and other, similar, texts is impressive but we should obviously be cautious about believing that, by so doing, the subtle effects and nuances of music can be made completely determinable.

Schoenberg’s Twelve Tone Music by Jack Boss

To tackle Jack’s book the reader will need to possess an understanding of twelve tone composition in advance but there is a wealth of information online.


Bearing in mind the skill, knowledge and purpose of so many talented people involved in the composition of atonal and twelve-tone music, one inevitably asks the question ‘why’. Why is this esoteric fringe, still an esoteric fringe, so long after its inception?

To answer the question it seems to me that a good starting point would be to investigate the source and evolution of music, at least the kind of formally constructed music so many us take for granted. (There are cultures that were civilized when some European peoples were still painting their faces and throwing rocks at each other and yet their music never evolved to a state where formal architecture was considered to mark all that is best in music. Improvised self-expression is the ‘norm’.)


Our primitive ancestors would have issued spontaneous sounds of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Repeated use of similar expressions to portray similar emotions resulted in these reflexological expressions eventually crystallizing into verbal languages, with dialectical associations. The sonic symbolism of music took longer to evolve because it was less closely associated with the needs of survival but, even now, in an attempt to increase the richness of the meaning of language, we use intonational changes in our speech and also physical gesticulations. (In some languages, this tendency is even more marked. One word may have as many as eight meanings depending on its intonational presentation.)

Similarly, music will sometimes receive the support of lyrics or a libretto, whereby the usual connotative associations will acquire dialectic substance.


During early attempts to combine voices, composers chose harmonic intervals that were complete in themselves, requiring no resolution. To achieve this, they instinctively used intervals that had simple pitch ratios. As they began to use differing rhythms in the parts, together with different forms of motion – parallel, contrary and oblique – the range of intervals needed to make this possible increased, leading (to cut a long story short, because this subject is so well documented elsewhere) to the concept of vertical sections of the music being identified as the now familiar families of chords, with their attendant ‘rules’ and practical constraints.

The major and minor scales emerged, together with the various modes acquired by horizontal tonal displacements and tonality developed; the explanation of musical effect due to its relation to a tonic (or, sometimes, more than one tonic).

Again, this was an organic procedure, no doubt governed by the overwhelming effect of gravity in our lives. Even now, when our experience tells us that what goes up doesn’t necessarily come down, we retain an inherent ‘up-down’ orientation. (I maintain that people in many parts of the world also conceive time itself as moving from left to right, but that’s another story.)

The point of all this is that music was pulled from the Earth. It was part of us and part of our everyday experience of being here. It isn’t something whereby our ability to appreciate music requires explanation from the outside looking in. A person might not appreciate the classics, but few would regard the music of the great composers as being unintelligible. They just don’t like it very much.

It’s important to acknowledge that twelve tone music can imply planes and other reference points, just as it may also employ common chords, occasionally, but this is not the primary ethos of the ‘brand’.


Twelve-tone music is arguable closer to the ideal of music-for-music’s-sake than any other style. The problem is that all music will contain associative and connotative elements as perceived by the listener. Steep and rapid ascent will imply energy; sudden changes in dynamics and/or register will contain a shock value; simple oscillations around a central pitch imply calmness and tranquillity; loud brass implies aggression or militarism; successions of melodic forms moving downwards will imply low energy, even lethargy; those moving upwards create a feeling of energy and optimism. 

Music can also express the three-dimensional world we inhabit. Pitch gives us the vertical axis, time the horizontal and the layered depth of orchestration, accompanied by different dynamic levels and choice of instruments, gives us the third. Loud brass is perceived to be close to us and soft woodwinds appear to be further away. In the recording studio**, mixing techniques can be employed to increase the sense of ‘presence’ by selecting the level of reverb and the position in the panning landscape.

These perceptions are always with us, whatever style of music we choose.

Music, because it mirrors nature so successfully in the ways I am describing, portrays a state before human beings even existed on Earth. As Aristotle pointed out, rhythms and melodic sequences are ‘movements’ just as much as they are actions.   

But the main reason twelve-tone music has attracted limited acceptance is that, even now, around one hundred years later, composers require a deep formal acquaintance with the idiom, followed by a heavily cerebral period of construction and style of conception in order to write.

Untutored musicians can compose acceptable tonal music intuitively but twelve-tone music requires intellectual effort accompanied by an analytical process without which flaws would slip by that the listening experience of even the most accomplished musicians would be unlikely to notice, as they occurred.

Music is also a temporal idiom. Unlike a painting or piece of sculpture, it takes place within time***. The idea that twelve-tone music arrives with in-built relationships and symmetries justified by an inner logic is difficult to assimilate because these interactions evolve in real time, in the perception of the listener, as the composition evolves, so that they cannot be pre-judged. The same argument could be used with tonal music, except that tonal music arrives with natural associations. Its components were originally drawn directly from nature and experience, not from externally imposed rules.****

At the end of the day a composer cannot work in a vacuum. Musicians need to perform and to do so they require listeners. To attract listeners they must play and write the kinds of music people wish to listen to (without necessarily making a deliberate attempt to pander to popular appeal or ascertaining the needs of a targeted audience and engineering something tailor-made for the purpose).

So, perhaps that’s it. Dodecaphonic music will never enter the main stream of everyday music because the majority of listeners find it so hard to listen to.

Composers have one reason to experiment: because they feel constrained by existing forms. This, too, needs further justification. Popular music offers many examples of the regular refreshment of ideas (driven by commercial pressures). Comparisons between the music of the 50’s, for example, and current popular styles reveal the extent to which variety can be achieved without invoking any new techniques whatsoever. The ‘standard’ songs of the 30’s. 40’s and 50’s contain subtle correlations between melody and harmony, with the frequent use of chordal extensions and alterations, whereas current forms tend to focus on arresting backing effects, over which the (usually simple) melody is superimposed. Little attention is paid to melody/harmony relationships.

The pentatonic scale is commonplace. Its versatility is due to the fact that the two most active notes of the major scale, the fourth and the seventh degrees, are omitted.

It will take me too far off-topic to pursue this point further but the effectiveness of the early Elvis Presley recordings, done on a low budget, in primitive conditions, using a snare drum, string bass, guitar, simple piano triads and three guys going ‘doowap’ has to be mentioned in passing. 

Back to Tom & Gerry.    

*Milt Bernhart played with Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman and was a first-call trombonist in the Hollywood film studios. He is best known for his solo on Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. I met him on the occasion of his 70th birthday. We bought him a present which was a big balloon in a cardboard box. As he opened it, the balloon deflated with hilarious results. Milt’s big, booming voice and laughter filled the concert hall.

** The recording process can be regarded as being a later stage of the compositional process, along with the order of pieces in a concert program, where the input from audience response will have a bearing on the performance. Performed music is never a one-way process.

***Time is the only aspect of nature that is non-emergent. Current thinking suggests it was possibly a mistake to spatialize time, bringing it in as the fourth dimension and that there probably is a global time, after all, and objective simultaneity is possible, without its requiring to be relativistic, except in local reference frames.

****Interestingly, some believe (as I do) that the Universe itself is not governed by immutable laws bounded by initial conditions within a configuration space. Laws must be part of the Universe, otherwise they would have to be ‘elsewhere’. This being the case, as the Universe evolves, the laws, too, must change.

Change changes.
(Read: The Singular Universe And The Reality Of Time by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin.)


One thought on “Dodecaphonic music

  1. Hi John, I hope this email finds you well. It has been a while since we last communicated! I’ve been invited to guest edit a volume for Cambridge Scholars Press entitled Music in Human Experience: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Musical Species. The description is quite broad and I’m wondering if you might know of anyone — colleagues, graduate students, yourself — who might be interested in contributing a chapter. Submissions have been coming in slowly and the book is still several chapters short. 

    Description: Music plays an integral role in many facets of human life, from the biological and social to the spiritual and political. This book brings together interdisciplinary and cross-cultural studies on the functions, purposes, and meanings of music in human experience.

    A chapter should normally be no longer than 6000 words, and should be original and previously unpublished. If the work has already been published (e.g., as a journal article or in conference proceedings), the publisher will require evidence that permission to be re-published has been granted.

    Here’s the web link (my volume is under the music tab): Guest Edited Collections – Cambridge Scholars Publishing

    Many Thanks!



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