The problem with contemporary ‘serious’ music is that hardly anyone wants to listen to it. In abandoning functional tonality in the 20th century Western music squandered a great gift. I think we should make a return to tonality but without resorting to pastiche or the monotony of minimalism. Music needs to find its expressive voice again. A large amount of contemporary classical music is simply excruciating on the ear. Most of the rest only seems to be able to make torturous gestures. With the abandoning of tonality we left ourselves without the capacity to express a huge amount that we want to say.

Schoenberg may have thought serialism was the answer to what he considered to be the worn out chromaticism of the late 19th century. But he developed a system that the ear didn’t understand – even if the mind did. When every element of music became serialised in the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, etc, then it seemed as if we would never be at home in music again. Other ways of structuring music have not been so unpleasant on the ear; we find easier to listen to neoclassicism, folk-inflected music, minimalism, etc. But still, there is something self-conscious and artificial about the works written in these styles. It’s a common attitude to pour scorn on composers who write tonally. It seems to me, however, that it’s much more challenging to find one’s own compositional voice using traditional tonal methods than to compose something that no-one can understand aurally.

2 thoughts on “Tonality

  1. I think for ‘art’ music the age of functional harmony has well and truly passed. But I think composers are starting to find their way back to the triad. It seems random to use a system of 12 notes, which clearly arose out harmonic properties of tones (that is, the harmonic series), to write atonal music. I find one of the few contemporary composers who really moves my soul is Arvo Pärt. His music shows us – again – the beauty of the triad.

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