Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is Atonality? - Part 2

Does Atonality Go Against Nature? - The Overtone Series

In this video, Robert continues the discussion on atonality by answering these questions: Does atonality go against nature? What is The Overtone Series?

Released on August 12, 2015

  
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, welcome to VirtualSheetMusic.com, and LivingPianos.com.

Today's question is, does atonality go against nature? This sounds like a really loaded question, and it's likely to elicit very strong responses. You know, this is almost a philosophical question. But first, I'm going to talk a little bit about what atonality is and how it goes against tonality, the foundation of Western music in some ways, arguably.

Well, Western music is built upon the overtone series, which is a fact of nature. That is, all vibrating objects contain color tones, so when you're hearing a fundamental pitch, it actually contains other notes within it. And indeed, any vibrating object elicits these pitches, so on a string instrument you can get the same series of notes that you would get blowing through a garden hose, or a French horn. It's all the same series. And what is that series? It goes as follows...

You notice the intervals that start out very large: The octave, then the perfect fifth, the perfect fourth, the major third, getting smaller and smaller. But what makes it possible to hear these intervals is that they are simple relationships. An octave is just a 2:1 relationship. Sound is merely vibrations, and when you have, for example, an A, that's 440 cycles per second. That's right, your eardrum is actually vibrating back and forth 440 times every second. If you play an octave higher, that's 880 cycles per second, so we hear it as the same note. Now a fifth, a perfect fifth, is a 3:1 relationship. It's pretty easy to hear a fifth, a fourth. As you get more distant and more dissonant, the relationship becomes more and more extreme. So for example, a minor second is a very distant relationship and has a very extremely distant sound. Why? Because it's hard for your brain to make mathematical sense out of it, because it's so distantly related. So, some things are harder for you to digest mathematically, and we call that dissonance.

So the question is, does this go against nature? Well, as I said at the beginning, this is a philosophical question. Think about this for a minute. If you think about the entire universe as being orderly, then indeed atonality goes against nature. But if you think about the universe as being chaotic, then indeed atonality is an expression of the universe. So the question is, is the universe ordered, or do we just find order in it for our own survival? And this is an interesting question that there are very many books written about and religions based upon, because ultimately we must find order out of chaos even when there is chaos to make our way in this world. So we always strive to find structures and patterns and things, just to be able to make sense of the world around us. That's why tonality is so refreshing, because we can digest it easily, much more easily than atonality. Yet, if something doesn't present us with enough challenges intellectually, it's boring. But if it's too chaotic, and you can't find any order whatsoever, it's equally incomprehensible and therefore boring as well. That fine line of being able to have some kind of structure seems to be what we can hold onto in life and in art.

So that is my opinion, and I'm interested in hearing about yours. The question is, what is your intellectual capacity for making order out of chaos, or finding order in things? Some people like much simpler structures than others, which can explain why some people love atonal music and other people abhor it.

So, thanks for the questions coming in, and I'm very interested in your comments on this video. Again, Robert Estrin here at VirtualSheetMusic.com and LivingPianos.com.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

paul plak * VSM MEMBER * on August 27, 2015 @3:49 pm PST
While many church music pieces are meant to express God's order in this universe, they are often very tonal in their structure. Yet even the masters of this church music, like J.S. Bach, actually use the minor second quite a lot to create tension, and then relief. So it indeed actually boils down to what you want to express with music, and what you like to hear as an audience.
More modern composers like Messiaen or Poulenc managed to write beautiful church music that gets away from some strict tonal rules.
Bird singing, that Messiaen studied a lot and included in his music, is natural and not really tonal. yet most people will describe bird singing as beautiful.
So I fully agree with the philosophical nature of the question, and of the power of our cultural background in appreciating various music styles, tonal, atonal, free jazz, rhythm,... It's all related to values we assign in our urge to get some level of control over the world we live in.
Thank you for your well prepared speeches and videos on so many musical subjects besides the piano playing.
J. Kennedy on August 26, 2015 @4:18 pm PST
What an excellent description of atonality and its place in the arts!
I always find your videos to be clear and insightful.
Thank you!
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