Extracts from 'Super Tonality- a Revolution in Music'


What is classical music? - music whose subject is its self reference.

The essential component that makes this great tradition unique is its notation.

Western classical music alone developed written notation.

It is the only music of the world which is written down, at least remotely to the degree of complexity and precision of the present day and preceding centuries in the West.

This extraordinary device of written notation put into the hands of musicians the possibility to make a music, at once structured, extended, precise, complex, but also leaving enough freedom for its re creators, the performers, to bring their own creative powers of interpretation to each performance so that no two performances of a work will ever be identical thus ensuring perpetual renewal of the musical score provided by the composer.

The combined effect of a notated music that nevertheless is endlessly varied with every performance has led to this vast body of works from the last centuries – the Western classical tradition.These works comprise arguably the greatest music in the world, and certainly represent a musical form with limitless expressive potential, which is able to command sentiments which pop and rock music cannot do, however great those forms are in their own right, because they do not possess the breadth, depth and scope of structure possible in classical forms.

Notation gives classical music the great power to become self referential, allowing composers to relate every aspect of a work to itself from beginning to end.

It is this self reference that defines a work of music as classical.

Of course self reference is found in all sorts of music.

But once the subject of a work has become its self reference, it could be said to be classical, in whatever style, of whatever period.

Music defines itself as "classical" when its subject is self reference.

And only notation made this formal level of self reference possible.

No other world music has at its command this extraordinary degree of formal control. That is not to claim that Western classical music is better than any other sort, but just to identify what it does that is different.

This is why it would be so great a loss to the world if artists were no longer to enrich this "classical" tradition with works of equivalent appeal and power as those of the past, and why we should all be concerned for its survival.

Yet that survival is now in question.

Paradoxically, it is the system of notation itself that, in the hands of atonalists, has led to the current crisis.

A hundred years ago an experiment began amongst classical composers to radicalize their language. The result was atonalism, or twelve note music, using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale organized in a "note row" by the composer -the so called "twelve note row" - instead of the traditional scale. As this experiment began to take hold and dominate the work of new composers, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg amongst them, (the so called "Second Viennese School" - the first being Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven), so contact with the greater audience for music was lost, despite Schoenberg and his disciples being composers of prodigious talents. And while Schoenberg’s early tonal works, for instance 'Verklärte Nacht', were ravishingly beautiful and Webern’s music, while atonal was startlingly arresting and Berg’s works, especially his two great operas lyric masterpieces, the musical genre to which the work of all three led, that of atonalism, particularly in the works of subsequent generations of their followers to this day, has proven to be catastrophically esoteric and unpopular with the wider classical music loving audiences.

The resultant music was unmelodious, discordant and arrhythmic, especially from the mid twentieth century onwards to now.

The existential angst expressed by atonalism was perhaps a true and inevitable manifestation of its time- but its time has passed and we composers need permission to again open out to a wider horizon which can once more include the full spectrum of human experience, not just the narrow cypher expressable in atonalism.

Atonalism in its extended atrophied form has led to a catastrophe for classical music.

Audiences have voted with their feet, or their ears.

They do not like atonal music, devoid of melody, harmony, or rhythm with which they can identify-and they never will.

Atonalism is one more tool in the expressive arsenal of a composer that enriches their expressive vocabulary, but atonal culture cannot dominate new classical music for ever and after a century it is time to move on - and out - and up.

But atonalism, directly or indirectly, has dominated new "classical" music for the last hundred years, and the atonal establishment control the culture. Now, unbelievably, one hundred years later, atonalism and its after effects still presides over the so called new classical culture, or what is left of it, a remnant, culturally irrelevant to the world.

Tonal composers of new classical music have been all but destroyed. The classical tradition is therefore not being renewed and faces death.

Do not be deceived. Improbably, despite the hype to the contrary, atonalism - and its even worse derivative "styles" - has not moved on. The products of the living atonal composers of today, the early twenty first century, Birtwistle, Ades, who? - (names the culture loving public have often never heard of because atonalism is so self obscuring) - the music of these and their atonal peers is imponderably close in musical language to ‘Erwartung’, written by Schoenberg in 1909. The contemporary atonal composers are plagiarists upon a century old culture that was doomed from the start.

Atonalism is no longer radical. It should take its place as merely a further aspect of musical language- which is always, in essence, tonal.

Those who now create a new music for this new century are the true radicals. I describe this new music as "Super-Tonal" and I will try to say what I mean by this term in a later chapter, or at least do my best to hint at it.

New classical music has, one way or another, been held in the atonalist thrall for over a century, and those of us who do not want the classical tradition to die as a living creative force have to ask, what now?

Do we just give up on writing music for the concert hall and move into writing film, television and stage music, or into advertisement music, or become rock musicians with a band or go into jazz or some other sort of "commercial" music? The answer so far has probably been yes; all of that is what has happened over recent decades, and all of those options can lead to great careers and the production of marvellous work.

But what if, like me, you were not satisfied just to play and enjoy the music of the past, but had to write new music, as it were, from within the classical tradition, which spoke of your own time, and the future, and you aspired to write free-standing autonomous concert music?

What are the options? Do you go on trying to invent in atonalism, which nobody likes, except the critics, and which, however interesting once, is no longer new, radical or valid and which has no significant audience?

Or do you dare to try the seemingly disallowed, to write new classical music with a contemporary sensibility that is unambiguously tonal?

To do so would seem to risk plagiarizing or copying the distant past. Did not Schoenberg and his contemporaries convince us that the world of tonal melody and harmony was exhausted and over a century ago? To pick that flame up again would be to burn one’s own hand in the fire of ridicule, to be condemned as reactionary, philistine or naïve.

That is a risk that we composers must now take.

The risks are great but the potential reward is greater, nothing less than the rebirth of music.

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Tonality releases the expressive power of dissonance.

We normally think of tonality in music as our system of keys, C major G major, D major, A minor and so on. But I am suggesting a much broader definition for tonality, or, if you like, a more comprehensive one.

I have suggested for tonality the template of “pattern”.

Using that as the model, dissonance is then any disturbance to the pattern. It is this disturbance of pattern, or dissonance, that creates expressive or emotional power in music.

Tonality releases the expressive power of dissonance.

Music itself is inseparable from the tension between consonance and dissonance. Music takes place when that tension is evoked.

The tension between consonance and dissonance is the domain of music.

But without pattern there can be no deviance, without symmetry no asymmetry.

Atonalism is uniformly asymmetric music, all dissonance.

As the power of music lies precisely in the tension between consonance and dissonance, music which is all dissonance – atonalism - loses all tension and therefore all expressivity, except within a very narrow domain.

Tonality provides pattern, from which deviation can then take place.

The opening of Wagner’s opera ‘Rhinegold’ provides an illustration. For many bars Wagner sets up a huge pattern of E flat major in the orchestral introduction. He builds this key up in rising arpeggiations for bar after bar. Just as the ear might have begun to rebel, the pattern is consummated as, finally, we are released into the opera, the spell is broken and the music freed into flowing and changing harmonies. This moment of release is one of the most startling in music. It is the release however, not the endless bars of E flat which makes the introduction so extraordinary in effect .A powerful pattern was set up. But it was set up only in order to be broken, and it is at the moment of its breaking that the power of the opening is released.

Let us re embrace the patterns of tonality. Let us freely explore again infinite designs so we can re inhabit this limitless sea of all music.

It is in the symmetries of music that the composer’s art resides. The patterns of the music affect the listeners’ emotions according to the subtlety and surprise with which it deviates from its own design.

Le Corbusier described architecture as “the magnificent play of light upon form.”

Music is the magnificent play of tonality upon rhythm.

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Tonality and the Harmonic Series , the infinite sea of all music.

Tonality represents pattern in sound.

In pitches, in the West, this has come to mean the major and minor scales and the modes. On the one hand these seem a man made tool, and in other words could be different, a random man made device. But when you listen to other musics from around the world what strikes you with force is the similarity of their scales to our major and minor scales, not their difference. This comes as a shock to discover when you have spent your whole life listening with Schoenberg’s ears (whether you knew you were or not). You would expect to find huge differences if Western tonality was, as he taught, just a finite limited period of style; a random system for ordering pitches, which served a useful expressive purpose for a century or two and then by 1900 was over.

But in fact the music of India, Africa, Asia and America is very close to Western tonality in its scalic intervals. It is melodious, harmonious, singable, hummable and memorable and rhythmic with periodic (regular) beats so avoided in atonalism.

Listen closely and you will hear that all the music of the world has tonal melody and harmony.

It is atonalism that is the random construct, not tonality.

Indeed, tonality is not a construct but innate to the structure of sound itself.

Schoenbergian atonalism led to a music in which pitch structure is ordered by a quasi-numerical criteria rather than a musical criteria. In other words towards a “music” ultimately undirected by the ear. This was the aberration that such a phrase suggests - leading to the impasse we still face.

All human music directed by the ear, which is to say all music except atonalism, is tonal. The melody and pitch pattern, the scales and harmonies of the world’s innumerable musics are amazingly close to our major and minor scales.

What unites Western tonal music and all other musics is far more strong than the differences.

Listen at random to any world musics and you will instantly hear tonality. Imagine for what you are hearing a key, and it will fit. Sing back the melodic fragments and they are tonal melody, as you may find in any western music from as far back as you can go.

Could there be an underlying principle that unites all music?

There almost certainly is, and its source may well be the harmonic series, a phenomenon of nature.

The harmonic series is the structure of harmonics or overtones that sound above a note, some audibly, some inaudibly. In other words play any note on the piano and above the audible pitch is vibrating first a pitch at the octave above the note struck – or the fundamental, as it is called – then above the octave a fifth, a forth, a major third, a minor third, a major second, then minor second, then decreasing intervals. This forms a spectrum of sound which influences the way we hear the fundamental note.

It represents an unchanging consonance in the natural structure of sound.

And this pattern of the first harmonics above the fundamental forms the consonant basis of all music. The chord, if you play it, of the first seven harmonics above the fundamental note, forms a beautiful harmonious sound.

It is from this innately pleasing consonant and symmetrical basis that all music springs.

Why is it “pleasing”?

For the same reason, perhaps, that light is pleasing.

Both the light spectrum and the sound spectrum of the harmonic series are root conveyors of nature’s energy and the human mind has developed in a sympathetic manner with these found conveyors of sensory perception in nature.

The harmonic series is the constant in nature to which the human ear has responded from the beginning of time to make music, and no doubt will go on doing to the end of time, a template against which all music sounds.

Incidentally, as this relates to a physical law of nature, the mathematically harmonious and symmetrical vibration of overtones, it is possible to imagine that these same principles would apply equally on another planet as here on Earth.

Of course there is an interaction between the ear and the natural vibrating frequencies of sound. Evolution has equipped us to respond to this structure and the physiology of our ears can detect it and therefore any deviation from it.

Thus we detect consonance and dissonance and, as I have already suggested, the interaction between consonance and dissonance is the affective power of all music.

Our ears choose to distinguish pitch variation to the division approximately of what we in the west call the semitone. Below that, in narrower pitch divisions, variation of pitch becomes less discernible and less affective therefore. That is not to say that smaller variation cannot work musically; smaller intervals towards the quarter tone are often found in other cultures and we use it in western music as well, instinctively inflecting pitches with minute expressive variation.

However, the examples, which in the atonalist world view, would be expected to be found, of exotic alien musics , made up of tiny intervals and unknown scales , is simply not there. Schoenberg said we should now explore the upper harmonics, higher up the harmonic series into the semitones and smaller. But this microtonal music has never worked (in the sense of becoming a basis for music) because the ear is relatively unimpressed by such tiny pitch division and, contrary to myth, such music does not exist anywhere in the world naturally, other than as expressive inflection around larger pitch divisions. As inflection it has a wonderfully expressive and haunting role to play but its occurrence in the musics of the world remains one of inflection around the tonal structures, not one of a separate microtonal music.

The whole world’s music is a result of the interaction between two great constants; the harmonic series structure of overtones in nature on the one hand, leading to the tonal nature of all music, and the psycho – physiological response system to it of the human ear and brain on the other.

The result of the interface between these two great constants is a music of humanity the world over which is tonal, which corresponds closely with our major and minor scales(which are nevertheless only one variant within the infinitely variable expressions of the super structure: tonality-in-nature.)

Tonality is not local, it is universal.

Tonality is the universal alphabet of music.


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All music is tonal.

In fact, even atonal music is tonal.

It is possible to understand this upon the basis that music is a heard phenomenon, not a written one. Western music devised the writing down of music, to better organize the heard structure. But when atonalists became more interested in the numerical patterns of written notation than the heard, the disaster of twentieth century atonalism followed.

But the peculiar fact is that music is only perceived as music when the ear and brain convert even the atonal intentions of an atonal composer into tonality.

Indeed, the method by which the brain understands it is hearing sounds organized with a musical intention, rather then random noises of everyday life, is by successfully detecting within the heard sounds the patterns of tonality, primarily a perception of pitch organization. If the ear hears sounds – and all sounds have a pitch and are potential musical material – but does not detect tonal organization, then the brain assumes it is hearing ‘ noise’ or sound either without organization, or without organization that the mind would suspect of having the intention of giving musical pleasure or interest.

Tonality defines sound as music.

All music is tonal.

Hence the often heard comment about a piece of atonal music that it is ‘just noise’. That is in fact exactly what it is, because the brain simply cannot perceive atonalism as music.

If it is perceived as music then something else must be happening within the mechanism of perception, and this leads me to an intriguing and astonishing aspect of the perception of music.

In order to hear so called atonal music as music, the mind has to convert it to tonality. It can be perceived as music only if the mind can find within its structures the implication at least of tonal pattern, as it is by finding tonal pattern within sound that we know we are hearing music.

This tells us something profoundly revealing about the whole nature of music:

that music occurs only when the mind searches for and finds tonal pattern.


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