How Richard Wagner Led To Atonality In Music

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Hi, I’m Robert Estrin. This is Today the subject is “How Richard Wagner Led To Atonality In Music.” If you’re familiar with Wagner’s music, you might be thinking of Ride of the Valkyrie, the Meistersingers, and so much more. It’s as tonal as you can get! So what am I talking about? How could Wagner be associated with atonality?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s a fact that the whole trajectory of music in the late 19th century with Wagner and then Richard Strauss into the 20th century, tonality had constantly shifting key centers. It modulated so often that there was total ambiguity as to what the final notes should be. Usually, you hear a piece and you know where it should end! Not so with Wagner. Certainly in later Wagner, like in Tristan and Isolde. Listen to the main theme. You’ll hear how there’s no key center, even though it’s tonal. Listen to this and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The implications that this brings to music are profound. But what do gorgeous, rich harmonies like those have to do with atonality? Well, If you have more and more shifting key centers, eventually you don’t even have a center of pitch anymore. And that’s exactly what happened.

The 12-tone system

Arnold Schoenberg, another great German composer, is credited with inventing the 12-tone system. That’s where instead of basing a composition on major or minor scales and chords, a tone row was created, putting all of the 12 possible notes in a specific order referred to as a, “tone row”. The whole idea of a tone row is to methodically avoid any kind of preference for any one note over any other note. They are all equal. Whereas in tonal music, there is a pull to certain active tones which must resolve to resting tones. The whole idea of tonality is, some tones are resolved and others must be resolved, not so with atonality.

Wagner pushed the boundaries so far that there was nowhere else to go other than the complete disintegration of tonality.

Listen to early Arnold Schoenberg, for example, his First Chamber Symphony, and you’re going to hear rich, lush, late romantic tonal music that is evocative of Wagner or post-Wagner. And so, Schoenberg himself finally broke through and just eliminated tonality from his music and then Berg and Webern followed suit. That led to a whole other style of atonal music, which truth be known, can be extremely difficult to listen to because the harmonies clash instead of blending. It takes a sophisticated listener to be able to decipher what you’re even hearing because the intervals are not very closely related. You know when you play a fifth, those are related in the overtone series. That’s a subject a little bit too deep for me to get into in this video, but the fact of the matter is, when you have a random arrangement of the 12 tones, you’re going to have music that is generally much more harsh. Which is great for certain styles of music. And I particularly like it when composers utilize elements of atonality in their music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire piece has to be atonal. It’s a tool like anything else, and it can be used to craft wonderful music.

I hope this has been interesting for you. I’d love to hear your comments about this! And any of you who have different perspectives on this, I welcome them in the comments and you’re always welcome to contact us at, We really appreciate bringing these to you and there’s lots more to come.

Thanks so much for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Store. See you next time!