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Atonality in a general sense describes music that departs from the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized the sound of classical European music from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Currently, the term is used primarily to describe compositions written approximately 1900 to 1930, in which tonal centers that had been fundamental to most European music since about 1600 are abandoned. This is most notable in the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. The word "atonality" emerged as a pejorative term to describe and to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was discredited as degenerate music (Entartete Musik).

The use of the term "atonality" poses two distinct problems. First, it continues to carry negative connotations as a result of its early pejorative use. Second, it has developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Some authors and academics have actively sought to solve these problems by rejecting the use of the word itself and replacing it with alternative terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," and "without tonal center," but these efforts have not gained broad acceptance. It would appear that the term "atonality," an imprecise word describing varied compositional approaches, will remain in use for the foreseeable future.

An earlier version of the above article was posted on Nupedia (http://www.nupedia.com/article/424/). This article is open content (http://www.wikipedia.com/wiki/open+content)

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