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Another Color for Your Musical Palette: Principles of Twelve-Tone Writing

Jazzed Magazine • Focus SessionMarch 2011 • March 23, 2011

With a tip of the hat to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (“Birds do it, bees do it”, etc.), Bird (Charlie Parker) never did it, nor did the B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) ever do it.

Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern did it many times. And believe it or not, jazzmen Leonard Feather and Bill Evans each did it once.

What these musicians did was compose music that utilized all twelve tones – once each – of one octave of the chromatic scale, as the principal melodic theme of a musical work.

Around 1910-1920, Schoenberg codified a system, called twelve-tone technique, also known as serial technique and dodecaphonic technique, in which those twelve tones were to be employed in a musical work in such a way as to prevent any one of them from sounding more prominent than any other. This music was said to be atonal, music not possessing a sense of key. (By contrast, music offering a sense of key, with one central fundamental tone acting as the musical focus, or center of musical gravity, is known as tonal music.)

Schoenberg’s two genius students, Berg and Webern, adhered to his precepts to varying degrees of fidelity to his system, Berg somewhat less so, resulting in music that was sometimes less forbidding; Webern to a more extreme degree in certain respects, resulting in music that was sometimes even more abstract than Schoenberg’s. All three of these composers, collectively, composed a body of unusually influential atonal music.

Incidentally, I have heard it said that Schoenberg’s preferred term was pantonality (all tonalities) rather than atonality (without tonality). Pantonality suggests the existence of all tonalities, music in which all tones are equal to one another (the prefix “pan” meaning “all”); whereas atonality suggests the absence of any tonality at all (the prefix “a” meaning” “without”). But the term “atonality” was the one that caught on with musicologists and educators, and came to describe that entire genre of music.

Jazz critic/composer/record producer Leonard Feather published an atonal composition in the 1960s, called “Twelve Tone Blues”, in an attempt to apply Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing method to a jazz context. But the work’s complexity proved that this compositional approach was too daunting to enable most other jazz composers and improvisers to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, jazz pianist/composer Bill Evans was inspired to compose “Twelve Tone Tune.” However, he harmonized the twelve tones in such a way as to make the piece sound tonal, which was the opposite of what Schoenberg had intended to accomplish with his compositional system.

While not actually employing 12-tone technique, Algerian jazz pianist/composer Martial Solal’s jazz playing is replete with a high degree of unresolved dissonance ordinarily associated with 12-tone music. To this listener, Solal’s playing is often highly suggestive of Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionist compositional approach. Solal’s fall 2007 solo appearance at New York City’s Village Vanguard, where I last heard him, received high acclaim in the press. His playing, to me, is the jazz embodiment of the Schoenbergian ideal; undoubtedly for many an extremely challenging listen, but always fascinating, arresting and compelling.

Why Employ 12-tone Technique?

A principal advantage of employing 12-tone compositional technique is to make one’s music sound contemporary. I have for quite a few years been an adjudicator of student original compositions, and have often been keenly disappointed by students who have written in a manner suggestive of 18th century musical influences, such as Mozart and Haydn, than of more modern ones. Employment of Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of composition would assure that one’s creative efforts would sound like the music of today, rather than the music of past eras surely a goal worth aiming for.

In his NY Times column on Sunday, January 9, 2011, speculating on which classical composers belong among the top ten of all time, chief music critic Anthony Tommasini states: “Schoenberg was arguably the most influential composer of the 20th century. That he pushed tonality past the brink and devised a technique to supersede it completely shook up the music of the era. Every composer in his wake had to come to terms with Schoenberg.”

Let’s now examine the nuts and bolts of his compositional system. It will then quickly become apparent how accessible that approach truly is, and how successfully composition students will be able to compose with a musical sensibility reflective of contemporary rather than past times.

How The Twelve-tone System Works

Schoenberg’s extremely novel idea was to create a 12-tone melody, called a tone row in 12-tone music, using each pitch of one octave of the chromatic scale once each, but organizing their order in such a way as to prevent the suggestion of a tonal, or key, center. The tone row pitches could be played melodically (one at a time), or chordally (several at a time). Pitch equality was to be achieved by not playing any note a second time until the other eleven had been sounded. Each composition would be characterized by the exclusive use of one set of twelve different notes.

The following 12-tone development treatments are based upon the tone row of my original piano solo Half-A-Minute Waltz (from my Hal Leonard book Three 12-Tone Waltzes plus Student 12-Tone Composing Outlines) which appears on the following pages in this issue.

Tone Row A twelve-tone melody using each pitch only once.

Tone Row

Retrograde The pitches of the tone row appear in backwards order.


Inversion The intervals between the pitches of the tone row move the same distance in the opposite direction; in other words, in mirror image to the intervals from pitch to pitch of the tone row.


Retrograde Inversion Intervals from pitch to pitch of the retrograde are played in inversion.

Retrograde Inversion

All four of the above tone row, retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion may be transposed to any chromatic scale step, thus creating 48 (12×4) different possibilities. Registers and octave position of any tone row pitch may also be changed.

Half Minute Waltz

Additional Examples

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

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