Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

7 thoughts on “Schoenberg vs. The People

  1. Mike Overly


    Thank you for opening this window into the music of Arnold Schoenberg. I enjoy following your blog.

    The history of the unresolved tonic (suspended tonality) is a long one, and to overly simplify, it culminated with the Twelve-Tone System or Pantonalism.

    Now, if I may open another window, I believe I understand how you feel from the title of this blog entry, and how you felt when you wrote this sentence: “The unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.” However, I feel differently for many reasons. Here are two.

    1. After the twelve tones are played, the twelve tones are repeated. in other words, the Twelve-Tone System is based on repetition. Schoenberg did not eliminate repetition, he just changed the concept of what and how repetition occurs.

    2. Since Schoenberg did not write Aleatoric Music, but rather, music organized around a “System of Intention,” I’m in agreement with Webern: “One can also take the view that even with us there is still a tonic present. I certainly think so, but over the course of the whole piece, this didn’t interest us any more.” , page 38.


    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thank you, Mike. I realize that I failed to mention a few things. The problem, as Huron sees it, is that in most music cross-culturally, repetition occurs within a few seconds of piece. This is evidentally what the average listener longs for. (I’m a fan of Schoenberg and this post was my attempt to understand why most people are not.) I appreciate your feedback and will amend accordingly.

  2. John Morton

    You make a good point that in a truly random situation repetitive patterns would arise anyway (the monkeys on the typewriters).

    Most of all, Schoenberg was attempting to use a purely musical form where the music is driven from ‘within’ by the shaping forces that emerge as we write. We’ve been here before, of course, in a sense, in our discussions regarding the ‘universality’ of music. It’s also worth bearing in mind the way that ‘conventional’ music evolved over the centuries into the comfortable, recognizable form we are familiar with. It didn’t happen overnight. The unfamiliar requires effort to assimilate.

    At least, Schoenberg was attempting to be more objective in his methods, not relying on subjective habits (complexes) of half-remembered elements. Of course, you don’t have to write serial music to achieve that. Personally, I’ve never rushed home thinking ‘I must put that 12 tone piece on when I get back’.

    Another point, often overlooked by critics, is that a composer doesn’t have to adopt serial methods to ‘free’ his music. There are ways of assembling harmonies and melodies that owe no allegiance to tradition or even tonal centres as we usually know them (See: Joseph Schillinger).

    You may care to play a string quartet I wrote on SoundCloud entitled ‘Aftermath’

    which (kind of) illustrates what I mean. I must apologize for the sound font on some of these samples. It’s along story. Some of the brass pieces were recorded live by the Championship Staffordshire Band who were virtually sight-reading.

    Regards to you, John Morton.

  3. jlfriedmann Post author

    Thanks for that, John. An argument can be made that Schoenberg’s attempt to make “pure” music, in which the notes of a piece have meaning only in relationship to other notes in that piece, he effectively distanced it from the human experience. As we’ve discussed, most people listen to music because of what it does rather than what it is. Since Schoenberg’s system breaks ties with the evolutionarily developed musical experience, it basically does nothing.

  4. John Morton

    Thanks as always.
    I don’t believe it achieves nothing. Melody, for example, is a trajectory with time in the horizontal axis (usually the vertical axis, of course, in spacetime graphs) and pitch in the vertical. It can emulate our physical experience by the way it behaves and, in so doing, produce a similar human response. Having said that, the end result in serial composition becomes very difficult to assimilate. It is not pleasant to most ears. I’ve always felt that it is written by and listened to by the cognoscenti. Also, because of the up-down sense of orientation we all experience, attempts to deny a ground-base will, at least in the foreseeable future, produce an effect that will be perceived to be unnatural.

    I have used serial techniques briefly, in otherwise ‘conventional’ settings, where I wish to take the music to a new level of dissonance and confusion; a feeling of chaos. This has worked well.

    I suppose the lesson here is not to disregard any principle categorically.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      I agree with you. I only meant that serialism is at a severe disadvantage when it comes to the relational aspect of music, which I have argued is its most important function. Because it is so difficult to relate to (without rigorous assimilation), it is “abstract music” in the truest sense of the term. That does not mean that it cannot be put to good use or be interesting (I’ve got an assortment of Schoenberg, et al. in my library); but for the average listener, it does not have much of an impact other than confusion.

  5. Pingback: Sonata No.1 For Guitar - Demons

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