Week 2 – Serialism

Serialism is method of composition that uses a series of values (frequencies/tones) in order to manipulate different musical elements (Griffiths, 2001).  It is a method to create atonal music (music that is not any particular key of any particular scale or mode).  Probably the most notable early pioneer of serialism was Arnold Schoenberg who invented the twelve tone technique, however, there were other composers at the time who were also trying to establish serialism as a movement towards post-tonal thinking (Whittal, 2008).  The twelve tone method was actually preceded by other “free” methods of atonal composition from 1908-23, however, since Schoenberg developed the twelve tone technique it has been the most widely used technique in serialism composition.  Schoenberg’s idea was to develop a technique which treated each of the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale with equal importance thus, creating atonality as opposed to earlier classical methods of composition which gave greater importance to some notes over others creating a tonal centre/key/harmonies.

By the 1950’s the twelve tone technique was used all over the world.  Some of the most well-known serialism composers include Webern, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Dallapicoola, Ernst Krenek and Ricardo Malipiero.  Some extended the technique to control aspects other than tone/pitch such as duration, method of attack etc…  Some attempted to subject all elements of the compositional process to the serial process.  It was this exploration that gave birth to “Klangfarbenmelodie” (German for sound-colour-melody).  “Klangfarbenmelodie” basically involves splitting musical lines between different instruments for a purely serial way of experiencing different timbres/attacks/durations…..everything different, one after another.

The way the twelve tone technique works is by creating an ordered arrangement of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  The first row can be created as chosen by the composer.  There are then 3 derivatives which can be gain from this original row to give 4 tone rows in total.  Rules for this technique are as follows:

  1. The ordering of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale is without regard to octave placement.
  2. No note is repeated in the row.
  3. The row may appear in inversion (prime form in reverse order), retrograde (prime form with the intervals inverted so that a rising minor third becomes a falling minor third, or equivalently, a rising major sixth), or retrograde-inversion (inverted row in retrograde), in addition to its “original” or prime form.
  4. Any of the four rows may begin on any note i.e. they can be freely transposed.
  5. When composing, the tone rows must be used from beginning to end without repetition before returning to the start of the row and/or transposing the tone row.

For my composition I used 4 “layers” of tone rows; an original, original inverted, retrograde and retrograde inverted:

D# D A C F B E G A# C# G# F#

F# E B D F G# C# G C D# A# A

D# E A F# C# G D B G# F A# C

F# G# C# A# G E B F C A D D#

It’s not strictly Klangfarbenmelodie although sometime sounds a bit like it; the 4 “layers” are played by 4 different instruments.  Tension is built and released throughout the piece through the varying velocities and timbres of different notes and instruments.  At times it is sparse with long sustaining notes (relaxing) and at other times very busy with clusters of notes and fast lines (more energetic, tense).

A link to this weeks composition is below:


Frankel, J (2005).  www.jamesfrankel.com/Serialism.ppt .  Accessed – Wed 19th Feb 2014.

Griffiths, Paul. 2001. “Serialism”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, 23:116–23. London: Macmillan Publishers.

Magnuson, P (2013).  SOUND PATTERNS.  A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture, Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music.  http://academic.udayton.edu/PhillipMagnuson/soundpatterns/microcosms/serialism.html .  Accessed Wed 19th Feb 2014.

Whittall, Arnold. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism. Cambridge Introductions to Music. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-86341-4 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-521-68200-8 (pbk).


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