Robert Estrin - piano expert

How Richard Wagner Influenced Atonality in Music

An interesting aspect in music history few people know about

In this video, Robert talks about the German composer Richard Wagner and how he can be linked to the atonality movement of the 20th century.

Released on January 22, 2020

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
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, I'm Robert Estrin. This is Your online piano store, and today the subject is how Richard Wagner led to atonality in music. Now, you might be thinking if you're familiar with Wagner's music, Ride of the Valkyrie, the Meistersingers, so much more. It's as tonal as you can get. So what am I talking about? How could Wagner be associated with atonality?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it's a fact that the whole trajectory of music in the late 19th century with Wagner and then into Strauss into the 20th century, that's Richard Strauss, the tonality became so shifting in key centers. That is to say that it modulated so often that there was total ambiguity as to what the final notes should be. Usually, you hear a piece and you know where it should end. Not so with Wagner. Certainly in later Wagner, like in Tristan and Isolde. Listen to this, the main theme, and you'll hear how there's no key center, even though it's tonal. Listen to this and you'll see what I'm talking about.

That's a pretty amazing chord progression, isn't it? Listen to it again. I just wanted you to hear this because it's chilling. The implications to music that this brings are profound.

Gorgeous, rich harmonies. Well, what does that have to do with atonality? Well, if you get more and more shifting key signatures, eventually you don't even have a center anymore. And that's exactly what happened. Now, Arnold Schoenberg, another great German composer, is credited with inventing the 12-tone system, which instead of basing a composition on a scale, a major or minor scale and chords. Instead tone row was created, putting all of the notes in a certain order.

There's one, there's a tone row. And the whole idea is to methodically avoid any kind of preferential preference, I should say, for any one note, for any other note, they're all equal. Whereas usually there is a pull to certain active tones and resting tones. For example, play a scale like this, and if you leave it there, it's like, "No." Ah, resolution. That's the whole idea of tonality, is some tones are resolved and others must be resolved, not so with a tonality.

So what Wagner did is he pushed the boundaries so far that there was nowhere else to go other than the complete disintegration of tonality. Now here's where it gets interesting. Listen to early Arnold Schoenberg, for example, his first chamber symphony, and you're going to hear a rich, lush, late romantic tonal music that is evocative of Wagner or post-Wagner. And so, Schoenberg himself finally broke through and just eliminated tonality from his music and then Berg and Webern followed suit and many, many other composers.

And that led to a whole other style of atonal music, which truth be known, can be extremely difficult to listen to because the harmonies clash instead of blending so much. So, it takes a sophisticated listener to be able to decipher what you're even hearing because the intervals are not very well related. You know when you play a fifth, those are related in the overtone series.

That's a subject a little bit too deep for me to get into in this video, but the fact of the matter is when you have random arrangement of the 12 tones, you're going to have music that is much, much more harsh in general. Which is great for certain styles of music. And I particularly like it when composers utilize elements of atonality in their music. It doesn't mean that the entire piece has to be atonal. It's a tool like anything else, and it can be used to craft wonderful music.

So, I hope this has been interesting for you. I love your comments about this, and any of you who have different perspectives on this, I welcome them in the comments and you're always welcome to contact us at, and if I like what you're seeing, you can always subscribe, ring the bell, you know the routine. Share it in your social networks. We really appreciate bringing these to you and there's lots more to come. Thanks for joining me again, Robert Estrin here at
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login as a Member  or  

Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Carol on January 22, 2020 @2:14 pm PST
Fantastic information
Robert - host, on January 22, 2020 @5:08 pm PST
So glad this resonates with you!
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.
Norton Shopping Guarantee Seal