A beginner’s guide to Schönberg’s twelve tone technique

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A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

Today’s blogpost is about twelve tone technique. I still remember my first reaction to the assignment in my first year at the conseervatorium: “Why would anyone want to write that kind of music, without any recognizable (and catchy) melody?”

But atonal music, and twelve tone technique with it, is a reaction to the romantic period: some classical composers felt that everything new that could be done with tonal music (music with a clear tonal center: a tonic, dominant, etc) had already been done. Tonality became more and more unclear and after a much needed and long retreat, a now very important composer in history named Arnold Schönberg came up with his twelve tone technique.

So what on earth is this twelve tone technique?

It is a very rigid, one could even say obsessively ordered system where every note is equal to another. There is no way to indicate a tonic or dominant or leading tones. There are strict rules about the notes you use. However, you are totally free in choosing your rhythmic motifs.

The result is (in my ears) totally unpredictable, even though there is a lot of mathematical logic behind it.

Why and how should I use it?

Of course, we are long past the experimental phase of this music, the period where this technique was new and interesting and artistic and innovative. I even wonder if there are any composers out there at the moment who still use this technique to write complete works.

In my eyes, every artistic and innovative technique in any form of art, becomes a gimmick over time, and after that, it becomes a way to achieve some kind of effect. Usually film music is heavily romantic music, but tons of film composers nowadays know exactly how and when to use techniques from 20th century classical composers, or the contrary: when to use composing methods from the classical or baroque period.

But not only in film music you can use this quirky twelve tone technique. Years ago, my friends Ruben once analyzed a very weird guitar solo from a certain progressive metal band (sadly can’t remember the name) and he discovered it was written using this method!

And my boyfriend Paul listens to progressive and technical rock and metal too, such as Last Sacrament. They use techniques such as microtonality, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they used twelve tone technique as well.

The basics of twelve tone technique

Create a tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

Let’s create a tone row to start with. It will be a series of all the twelve chromatic tones, no more, no less. You can put them in any order you like (but just a chromatic line might be a bit boring). Octaves don’t matter, so it’s easiest to just put your notes in the middle of the staff without the hassle of ledger lines.

Add the basic transformations of your tone row

A beginner's guide to Schönberg's twelve tone technique • CharlotteBax.nl

  • Retrograde: Your tone row backwards.
  • Inversion: Your tone row upside down. This means you invert all intervals: a major third up will become a major third down. That way of thinking.
  • Inversion of retrograde: Your rtrograde tone row upside down. You know the trick.

You may use any transposition of one of these tone rows in your work, so you have 4 x 12 = 48 variations of your tone row to work with. When you start with one, you have to completely finish it before picking another variation.

Some rules to keep in mind

Of course, just like any method, this one comes with a certain set of rules. But they are quite flexible!

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1 – Every note you write, may be transposed any number of octaves up or down.

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2 – You are completely free in choosing which variation of your tone row you use. They are all equal. This also applies to the prime tone row you started with.

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3 – You can use multiple variations of your tone row at once, or overlapping. This also means you can stack the notes to build a chord.

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4 – You may repeat a note, chord or motif multiple times, as long as you finish your row before picking a new variation.

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5 – When your next tone row begins with the same note your previous variation ended with, you don’t necessarily have to repeat it. You can “glue” the two variations of your tone row together with that one note.

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You can also combine these rules: maybe you use half of your tone row to create a repetitive motive and the other half as a chord or a melody.

So this is the basic knowledge you need to compose using twelve tone technique! The funny thing is that everyone who can read notes, can write twelve tone music using this set of rules. It’s a very mathematical way of thinking. Of course you are not bound by these rules, you can twist and turn this technique any way you like to achieve a certain effect or desired result. And that is where feeling and musical talent come in.

When we had to create a piece of twelve tone music for our teacher all the way back in 2008 (I feel ancient now…), my tone row was really chaotic, but one of my fellow students created a neat set of 3 similar motifs of 4 tones. He already created some recognizable, transposed pattern in the tone row itself.

But why use the traditional 12 tones? Maybe you want to use quarter tones as well and you end up with a 24 tone row! Or you choose an exotic (or less exotic) scale and order those notes using the twelve tone system. Anything is possible!

How would you use twelve tone technique? Don’t be afraid to discuss in the comment section! 🙂


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