Tonal Music: The Beautiful Sounds of Life

Published January 5, 2022

The 21st is the second century for music conservatories and contemporary concert composers to put forth the notion that atonal music is preferable to the tonal music that defined western civilization for 500-plus years.

Tonal music features an anchoring “key” signature, a note from which all other notes, melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions flow from and return to, thus providing an intricately developed mathematical structure to musical compositions that offers beautiful and emotionally gratifying experiences for listeners to enjoy. Dissonance — non-harmonic, sometimes-grating-to-the-ear notes or passages — in tonal music is used effectively to create periodic tension from which a return temporarily or eventually to the “tonic” key note will provide a sonic-emotional “rest” within passages or a satisfying “finish” ending a musical composition.

Atonal or “Twelve-tone” music, invented by Austrian-born Arnold Shoenberg in the 1920s, is strictly mathematical. His “Serial music” approach relies on a system consisting of sonic patterns where no note in a twelve-tone chromatic scale can be repeated until all other eleven notes in the same scale are played once. Since there is no melody, harmony, or chord progression in this music, dissonance is never resolved and becomes monotonous or annoying “keyboard math” or “chronic cacophony” repeated over and over in twelve-tone configurations ad infinitum.

Serial music — described proudly as “difficult music” by afficionados — has been considered superior to tonal music for a hundred years now, but it is noteworthy that in normal three-part concert performances this “music” is usually placed in between tonal music presentations because most music-loving audiences hate the form and only sit through an atonal piece because they want to hear the last tonal presentation.

What is it, then, even when atonal music is touted by so many “experts,” about tonal music that continues to please the rest of us?

Like all established western art forms — realism in the visual arts, coherence and meaning in literature, etc. — tonal music has an aesthetic “language” that can be understood and “felt” via its integration of melody, harmony, tempo, counterpoint, chord formations, modulations, etc. arranged to express a composer’s intent. The various elements of composition are endless, ranging from simple suggestive key intervals like the “insistent yearning” of the 7th to resolve up to the “tonic” key note on to such powerful emotional contrasts as those existing between major and minor modes.

Tonal music is complex! And it challenges our listening abilities the same way life challenges our reasoning abilities. Both need education and practice.

This is why tonal music should be included in any educational program for children, if not in formal school curricula then by private teachers.

All art training nurtures life-training, but tonal music is indispensable for guiding emotional-psychological development in the young because it speaks directly to the sentient consciousness. One might say that music is emotions, because feelings are its primary themes.

The instrument chosen to channel music’s emotional learning — piano, clarinet, violin, voice — is not important. Learning to play an instrument is.

The discipline of tonal music teaches the precision of math in a poetic realm, teaching the exhilarating balance and exalted integration of “reasoned harmony” (music’s form) and emotions (music’s content). It’s not often in our culture that children are taught to unite reason and emotions. Tonal music does this; therefore, the competence to hear it and to appreciate it by playing an instrument can be a rare source of pleasure and safe emotional release for the child now and the adult later.

Like life, tonal musical passages contain highs and lows, fast and slows and, as mentioned, its musical vocabulary includes dissonance and resolution, yearning and release, cheerful and brooding moods, all emboldening students making music to feel to their heart’s content within the security of a confined experience. There is no way to lose control because the tempo keeps the music going — the notes must be played on time and accurately — affording an opportunity to channel emotions into a finite structure with a finite time limit.

By learning to orchestrate emotional content through so rigorous a structure, the student must learn to merge reason and emotions; otherwise, the resulting music will — like Serial music — be cold and sterile, math without the poetry.

Tonal music is too mentally commanding to permit the flailing and screaming incited by percussive “Rock” and “Rap” as well; thus, it forces young people to regulate their emotional output. Also, because music deals with broad abstractions — triumph, defeat, love, loss — it allows young people to personalize universals of the human condition, to feel on a grand scale both the hope and the hurt that necessarily accompany an individual life fully lived.

For teens, in particular, it unlocks gateways to mature excursions into the ecstasy and vulnerability of love, the headiness and hazards of risk. Often, once young people begin to understand the value of tonal music, they turn to it in moments of emotional need to help them experience deep stirrings that may not make it to the surface of consciousness by themselves.

In short, as young people learn and experienced adults already know (regardless of the atonal opposition), we all need tonal music with memorable melodies to help us celebrate life and living to emotional fulfillment. Let us remember, too, at this time of year that Christmas music is always tonal, so “Merry, Merry” and enjoy the tunes.


PHOTO: Piano. PHOTO BY: Sean MacEntee, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).