Whatchamacallit – The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation

January 16, 2011

A Brief History

Starting with the fifth century, every period in music history is identified by a specific name, except for the 20th century and beyond.

The period stretching from roughly 400 to about 1400-50 is known today as the Medieval era also called the Middle Ages. The span from 1450 to 1600 is identified as the Renaissance, an era which featured a revival in Europe of classical art and learning that originated in Italy, a period of an awakening of intellectual awareness and the passing of European society from a religious to a secular orientation.

The period from 1600 to 1750 (the year of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death) is known as the Baroque era, an era of heavily ornamented art and music The span from 1750 until about 1827 (the year of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death) is referred to as the Classical era, a period characterized by what the music textbooks describe as “clarity of thought and beauty of form” in music.

What followed was the expressive and emotional music of the Romantic period, the dates of which are roughly 1827-1890, an era that emphasized the individual as never before in history, a period following the French Revolution in which power was transferred from royalty to the middle class. Then on its heels came the 1890-1914 Impressionist movement, which featured more subtle art and music and reflected aesthetic sensibilities of French origin.

What name, then, should the world affix to most of the period after that? Right now, we identify the music of the 1900’s as 20th century music. However I feel that Leonard Bernstein made the right call when he implied in his 1973 Norton lecture series at Harvard University that a good name for 20th century music would be The Age of Ambiguity. The logic of that expression is the subject of this article.


Composers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries used as the basis of their music scales that were a combination of intervals of whole steps and half steps specifically diatonic scales such as major and minor scales, with their five whole and two half steps each, though, in a different arrangement of those intervals. Because of the employment of scales having a mixture of intervals, the music based on those scales offered a sense that one pitch, the tonic (first note of the scale), or chord built on the tonic tone, was more prominent than any of the others and served as the musical center of gravity. This phenomenon is known as tonality, the feeling that the music is in a particular key and revolves around a central or home tone.

Keep in mind that major and minor scales employ only seven of the twelve tones of the octave. During the Classical era, composers used predominantly those seven pitches, with the remaining five chromatic tones employed less frequently.

EXAMPLE: (Mozart Bb Major Sonata, K. 333)

Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation


One octave of a chromatic scale consists of 12 pitches, each one-half step apart from the other. Unlike a diatonic scale with its uneven intervals of some half-steps and some whole-steps, it is the chromatic scale’s even interval relationships (all half- steps) that compromise tonality.

In the Romantic era, composers employed chromatic tones more often than composers in the preceding Classical period had, but their music to varying degrees still retained a sense of being in a particular key. A musical example of this is the love theme from Tschaikovsky’s Romeo Juliet Overture, which uses 11 of the 12 tones of one octave, instead of just seven different tones of the major or minor scales The reason why tonality is still present in this composition, despite the increased use of chromatic tones, is that the dominant-to-tonic chord relationship underlying the melody still remains intact.

EXAMPLE: (Romeo Juliet love theme)

Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation

By contrast, however, it was the late-Romantic composer Richard Wagner who, in the opening bars of his opera Tristan Isolde not only employed chromaticism to a high degree, but in the process negated the dominant-to-tonic relationship through the deliberate avoidance of resolution of his dominant 7th chords. Note the dominant 7th chords in bars 3, 7, 11, 13 and 16 and the absence of tonic resolution of any of them in the musical example that follows. Also note that when a ‘resolution’ chord (F major) finally arrives in bar 17, it is a deceptive cadence in that this chord is not a resolution of any of the preceding dominant 7th chords.

EXAMPLE: [Tristan Isolde]

Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation

Whole Tone Scale

Claude Debussy, the leading French Impressionist period composer, invented and frequently employed the whole-tone scale, with its exclusively whole-step interval relationships. But what is even more significant in terms of the negation of tonality is that in this scale there is no dominant scale degree (5th note of the major or minor scale). Note the absence of the dominant note G# in the following C# whole tone scale. With there being no dominant scale tone present, there can be no dominant-to-tonic chord relationship.

EXAMPLE: (C# whole tone scale)

Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation

And in that connection, note the tritone span (C# – G) of the opening of Debussy’s Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun and the absence in that passage of the dominant tone G#, except for its use as a passing tone.

EXAMPLE: (Opening theme of Afternoon of a Faun)

Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation

One can already clearly recognize a historical trend: the gradual ‘ambiguifying’ of tonality over time.


A further tonal ambiguity occurred when Igor Stravinsky employed bitonality (being in two keys simultaneously) in his 1911 ballet Petrouchka:


Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation


And another spike in the heart of tonality was accomplished, again by Stravinsky, in his 1913 ballet “The Rite Of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps),” in which he employed polytonality (being in three or more keys simultaneously):


Whatchamacallit - The Age of Ambiguity: An Apt Appellation


A final death blow to tonality was achieved when Arnold Schoenberg, in the 1920s, devised his 12-tone system (also known as serialism) to create and harness the forces of atonality (a word that translates to ‘without tonality’); which resulted in music in which no single tone acts as the musical center of gravity. While it has been argued that Shoenberg’s compositional system has resulted in an insubstantial body of musical literature in the repertoire, there’s no question that his method of composition has had a deep and profound impact on virtually all composers who came after him. Since the creation of his controversial compositional method, almost all composers have wrestled with the issue of how much tonality their music should contain. The workings of Schoenberg’s 12-tone system will be the subject of my follow-up article in JAZZed.

End Note

I hope that with this article the reader will acknowledge the appropriateness of Bernstein’s suggested name for 20th century music: The Age of Ambiguity.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent FJH Music Company solo-piano publications are the late-beginner level / early intermediate level Color Me Jazz, Books 1 and 2, and the intermediate/late intermediate level Ole! Original Latin American Dance Music.

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