Does Atonality Go Against Nature? The Overtone Series – Atonality Part 2

Piano Lessons / music theory / Does Atonality Go Against Nature? The Overtone Series – Atonality Part 2

This week we are presenting Part 2 in our series on Atonality. In Part 1, we gave a Brief Overview of Atonality. Today we are going to go into a bit more depth. The question of whether or not atonality goes against nature is a difficult one which may elicit a strong response in many viewers – both negative and positive. I would love all of your input on this subject and really appreciate any comments or suggestions you have.

Western music is built upon the Overtone Series – which is a fact of nature: all vibrating objects contain color tones. So when you hear a fundamental pitch it actually contains other notes above it. Any vibrating object that produces a pitched sound elicits these overtones – so a string instrument will produce the same series of notes as blowing through a French horn or even a garden hose! It is all the same series of tones. Here is the overtone series:

The intervals start out very large and then get smaller. These intervals are based upon simple relationships. For example, an octave (the first overtone) is just a 2 to 1 relationship. All sound is based upon vibrations so if you play A above middle C on a piano it has 440 vibrations per second. (This is why people speak of tuning to A 440.). Technically your eardrum is vibrating back and forth 440 times per second and it produces the sound of the note A. If you play A an octave higher you produce 880 vibrations per second, exactly twice the number of vibrations per second. That’s why it sounds like the same note. A perfect 5th (the second overtone) forms a 3 to 2 relationship.

A minor second is a very dissonant interval with a 16 to 15 relationship. The more distant the mathematical relationship of notes, the more dissonant they sound. Why is this? Because the human brain has trouble making mathematical sense out of more distant relationships of tones. So this is why some intervals of notes are harder to figure out than others. Clashing notes are referred to as sounding dissonant. Here is a chart of the mathematical relationship of musical intervals:

Unison (2 of the same note)              1/1

Octave                                                           2/1

Perfect 5th                                                  3/2

Perfect 4th                                                  4/3

Major 3rd                                                    5/4

Major 6th                                                    5/3

Major 7th                                                   15/8

Minor 7th                                                   9/5

Major 2nd                                                   9/8

Minor 2nd                                                  16/15

Tri-tone                                                        135/128

So, to some extent atonality going against nature and and is hard for the brain to digest. If you consider that the universe is constructed in an orderly manner – that there are inherent relationships between everything living and nonliving that can be organized down to a molecular level – than atonality goes against nature as it does not have tight formal relationships the way tonal music does. On the other hand, if you believe that the universe is chaotic and that many things are related only by random chance encounters which we seek to find order in, then atonality is simply an expression of the universe.

So the question of whether or not atonality goes against nature is related to how you see the universe itself. Is the universe ordered or chaotic? This is something that man has been grappling with since we first appeared on this earth and no definitive answer is possible. Ultimately we must find order out of chaos to survive in this world and that’s why tonality is so refreshing and easy to digest. Atonality is something that is hard to digest and challenging, yet some people find order within the chaos. The challenge of finding structure amidst the randomness that surrounds our everyday lives is what keeps us engaged in both art and life itself.

So the appreciation of atonal music ultimately comes down to your intellectual capacity of making order out of chaos. Some people prefer things to be more coherent while others enjoy the challenge of dealing with more randomness. What type of person you are will determine whether or not you enjoy or abhor atonal music. It also comes down to the level of sophistication of the listener because music is a language that must be learned.

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin I would love to hear from all of you and get your thoughts on this subject.