Atonality

I studied Music and Politics at Keele University and part of my degree was a series of composition modules. What we all discovered quickly was the more wacky and atonal your ideas were, the better your marks became. I went down the musicology route in my third year as I couldn’t bring myself to write atonal music – which was a shame as I enjoy composition. I managed to stay out of trouble in my first year by writing a piece for piano, clarinet and eight wine bottles tuned to the locrian mode but when I wrote a purely tonal children’s ballet for flute, clarinet, piano, marimba and untuned percussion in my second year I got a message saying “your composition is a catastrophe”. In the feedback with the professor, at a loss for an appropriate idea, I jokingly suggested a new piece called “Kitchen Music” where we would set up a series of microphones in my kitchen and bang things. He didn’t understand I was joking and thought this was a wonderful idea – even better if we could change the sounds in the studio and submit it as a DAT tape. Which is exactly what everyone was doing. We called it “peeps and squeaks” and it was encouraged by our teachers and everyone who did it got praised for originality. My ballet was pretty original in that it actually used instruments instead of tape and had dancing rather than a complex speaker system. Everyone else submitted a tape piece except me and my friend who wrote a tonal string quartet. They weren’t impressed with his piece either. In a panic worrying about his future grades and career, he sold out and wrote a piece called “Human Diffusion” for his third year which he admitted was pretty horrific consisting of getting our mate Adrian to make weird noises and then muck around in the studio to make him sound like Godzilla. He got a first for that one. I exchanged composition for writing a pretty boring dissertation about Russian dictatorship and cultural revolution. Almost all of us on the course composed music we didn’t want to write and didn’t like to listen to.

Atonal music has been influential in the Music National Curriculum in England and Wales. One of the biggest influencers was a man called John Paynter who wrote books and articles enthusiastically extolling the benefits of atonal composition for children. Arguably, it’s his influence that began the KS2 and 3 group work compositions where you had to create a piece of music about the forest using a haiku and half a dozen broken instruments. The good thing about atonality as far as Paynter was concerned was that you didn’t have to have any expertise on an instrument as you were dealing with sounds and didn’t need any knowledge of melody, harmony or rhythm. You could simply create, just like an artist could create paintings using swirling colors without it having to look like anything concrete. In the book cover picture above, children are “preparing” a piano in the manner of the composer John Cage. The idea is to make the piano a truly percussive instrument by using nuts and bolts and bits of elastic inside the strings. You get different sounds, but wouldn’t it be best to actually learn how to play a keyboard instrument instead? Preparing a piano is not going to make you any better at music but playing one will.

You would expect a lot of interest in atonal music with the younger generations who made music this way, wouldn’t you? It looks like great fun! But no – it remains a strange relic of the 20th Century, almost entirely taught in university music departments and curiously in primary and secondary schools in the UK. It does not happen in North America where they teach students to play instruments for marching band or concert band. So why do the British university lecturers love it but everyone else seems to hate it, and how has this niche, unpopular style of making music found its way into our classrooms?

Public Music Education in the UK has historically been pretty awful for the majority of children who didn’t play instruments but this wasn’t so much of a problem in the past as many children received free instrumental lessons and we had some great local authority music centers. Sometimes the children who got lessons in school were randomly selected or through a now discredited aural test called the Bentley Test. However, children on free school meals, like myself, got free instrumental lessons because we were poor and disadvantaged so there was an element of equity to the system. But in the classroom there was the age-old dilemma of how to teach music when some could play instruments and some couldn’t. We ended up with a pretty universal system of Classical Music appreciation with written theoretical exercises, a bit of singing and not much else. Paynter’s ideas were about creating music and the advantage was you didn’t have to have had instrumental lessons to create atonal music. It was like a sonic slosh of vibrant colours for all. These ideas were lapped up with gusto with University lecturers and Music ITT trainers who were the most instrumental in devising the initial music curriculum in the late eighties when the National Curriculum was first created. There was some dissent and many music teachers were very worried and unwilling to teach this type of composition. Many of these to be honest were pretty awful teachers and stuck in a bygone era, but some including my own secondary school music teacher were more worried about the decline in standards and the ability of a teacher being able to police this type of creative work within a small classroom. His approach was a relatively traditional curriculum but with ample musical opportunities such as choirs, orchestras and an open door to the department so anyone could come and compose music on the Atari computer or form a band. We had loads of bands for a relatively small school, a very active choral society, a choir that sang in eight part harmony and good numbers of us who did GCSE and A-Level. We never did atonal group work and he never had to do duty as he daily policed that department, encouraging us and berating us equally and fairly.

The result of Paynter’s approach to Music Education is that children don’t actually get better at music. This is how you end up with a situation that after ten compulsory years of learning music, children can’t actually play anything at all. If you don’t need to learn how to play a melody, why would you learn to play a melody? If you don’t need to know how to formulate a major and minor chord, why would you learn about harmony? You may learn other skills, and quite a few of these are useful generic skills such as teamwork and communication but you aren’t really learning anything that most of the rest of the world would deem to be musical. There are many reasons for the decline of Music at GCSE and A-Level but in my conversations with students, they really think that the course is very hard and want to choose something they are good at. We need students to be more confident in their musical abilities and a diet of atonal group work will not help children get better. We need better standards earlier.

An interesting question is why the vast majority of people hate atonal music. I don’t think there has ever been a piece of atonal music in the top fifty pieces of Classic FM. The abolition of harmony has not been a popular endeavor anywhere at any time. It’s barely part of any society on earth that uses melodic instruments. There is a theory that it is part of a human being’s fight or flight mechanisms. We anticipate the resolution of a harmonic sequences and this can create emotional and physical sensations in our bodies such as hairs standing up on end, tears or even sexual arousal. Researchers such as John Sloboda have found that enharmonic changes, ornamentation, appoggiaturas, the harmonic circle of fifths and modulation can all create these physical effects akin to our basic instincts of waiting and listening for predator or prey. This simply doesn’t happen with atonal music – the only emotion most people feel is unpredictability and chaos, which is probably why this music is used to unsettle us in horror movies. I have met some people who think atonal music can be beautiful. What is interesting is that they all work, or have worked in universities and music conservatoires. For the vast majority of people, atonality is ugly and emotionally unfulfilling. It won’t make us happy or uplift us spiritually, it’s just an opportunity for self-promoting music hipsters who want to think they are more musically and intellectually superior to us commoners. It’s the “Emperor Has No Clothes” of music.

The good news is that the world of Schoenberg, Webern, Cage and Paynter has passed and no one outside of the universities take these individuals seriously. What we need to do now is make sure that we teach children at an early age about melody, harmony and rhythm. Teach children to play well known tunes that delight them on instruments they can play and get better at. Teach children to sing great melodic songs in parts. Teach children to play music together using conventional harmonies and chord sequences. This is what the public, parents, most teachers and children want and the great news is that it actually makes you better at music. The only ones who don’t seem to want this are stuck in the ivory towers.