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Twelve-tone technique

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Twelve-tone technique is a system of musical composition devised by Arnold Schoenberg. Music using the technique is called twelve-tone music.

Schoenberg himself described the system as a "method of composing with 12 notes which are related only to one another".

The technique The basis of twelve-tone techique is the tone row, an ordered arrangement of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. When the technique is applied most rigorously, an entire piece must be built up from statements of this tone row and variations upon it. Both melody and harmony are created in this way.

The initial tone row used is called the prime series (P). P can be used starting on any one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale - so long as the intervals are the same, the rows are equivalent.

Additionally, P can be transformed in two basic ways: it can be turned backwards to get the retrograde (R) or turned upsidedown to give the inversion. These two transformative techniques can be combined to give the retrograde inversion (RI). As with the prime series, R, I and RI can be started on any note of the chromatic scale.

Suppose the prime series is as follows:

Then the retrograde is the prime series in reverse order:

The inversion is the prime series with the intervals inverted (so that a rising minor third becomes a falling minor third):

And the retrograde inversion is the inverted series in retrograde:

P, R, I and RI can each be started on any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, meaning that 47 variations on the initial tone row can be used, giving a maximum of 48 possible tone rows. However, not all prime series will yield so many variations because tranposed transformations may be identical to each other. A simple case is the ascending chromatic scale, the retrograde inversion of which is identical to the prime form, and the retrograde of which is identical to the inversion (thus, only 24 forms of this tone row are available).

When rigorously applied, the technique demands that one statement of the tone row must be heard in full before another can begin. Adjecent notes in the row can be sounded at the same time, and the notes can appear in any octave, but the order of the notes in the tone row must be maintained. Durations, dynamics and other aspects of music other than the pitch can be freely chosen by the composer, and there are also no rules about which tone rows should be used at which time (beyond them all being derived from the prime series, as already explained).

Schoenberg's idea in developing the technique was for it to act as a replacement for tonal[?] harmony as a basic grounding force for music. As such, twelve-tone music is usually atonal, and treats each of the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale with equal importance, as opposed to earlier classical music which had treated some notes as more important than others (particularly the tonic and the dominant note).

History of the technique's use

Founded by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg around the late 1910s, the method was used during the next 20 years almost only by the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg himself), though was later taken up by composers such as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Dallapiccola and Igor Stravinsky. Some of these composers extended the technique to control aspects other than the pitches of notes (such as duration, method of attack and so on), thus producing serial music. Some even subjected all elements of music to the serial process.

In practice, the "rules" of twelve-tone technique have been bent and broken many times, not least by Schoenberg himself. For instance, in some pieces two or more tone rows may be heard progressing at once, or there may be parts of a composition which are written freely, without recourse to the twelve-tone technique at all.

Although usually atonal, twelve tone music need not be - several pieces by Berg, for instance, have tonal elements.

One of the best known twelve-note compositions is Variations for Orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. "Quiet", in Leonard Bernstein's Candide, satirizes the method by using it for a song about boredom.

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