Cinema and Atonal Music

Cinema and Atonal Music

Introduction: The effects of music on cinema can be easily understood with a little research but the main question is what kind of music has influenced what kind of concept of cinematic aesthetics? Has the tonal music, which has already influenced the classic films of cinema, the montage and storytelling, influenced the modernist films as well?

Studying the history of art shows that the formation and evolution of artistic styles and movements has not been accidental and has been transferred from one person to another and from one art to another, often reflecting the social, cultural, economic and political influences in the era of creation and initiation of art.

From the beginning, cinema considered itself indebted to music, with the advent of storytelling in cinema and the use of narrative rules and rhythms, as well as its evolution by Griffiths, which eventually led to making the first narrative storyteller in cinema history, narrative rhythm and editing rhythm in the formation of film, with many cuts that were no longer a part of life, established the use of music rules in cinema. With the advancement of cinema and the emergence of different cinematic schools, the use of music took on a special direction. The way music was used by impressionism school was different from that of in the Russian Montage Movement and both of these methods used it differently from Hollywood king plot makers. They used the same kind of music, but their perceptions and their influence on the music were different. Their music was the same as the aesthetics of music before the twentieth century; Rhythmic music with strong harmonic and aesthetic rules and involved a special cognition that introduces and builds rhythm and melody, repetition, expansion and extension and integration known as tonal music.

It was the filmmakers who chose which branch they wanted to use and in what form they desired to use it.

But what happened decades later had no musical justification, neither in editing nor in narration; With the advent of surrealism, modernist schools of cinema, and Absurdism that entered the category of narrative, stage design, and body language in cinema with the creation of modern theater, language and expression in cinema changed, finding meaningful connections between tonal music and cinematic works of cinematographers such as Shantal Ackerman, Andy Warhol, Antonioni and many of the great artists of cinema is a very difficult and complex task. As in the past, these artists, under the influence of atmosphere dominating the artistic space created by political and social events, rebelled against the existing established artistic laws and created their own cinema by disrupting the usual forms and rules of aesthetics and used different expressions of music consciously or unconsciously.

This new musical expression is an atonal-style composition in which, by breaking all the rules of aesthetics and harmony of previous years, it gave the composer complete freedom to shape his inner sense in music, regardless of the previous rules.

In this article, in addition to introducing the method of Atonal composition, it is tried to introduce modernism from Adorno’s point of view and finally explain the method of cinema’s perception of this new musical trend.

Atonal music, Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School:

In the early years of the twentieth century in Germany, the Romantic style was nearing the end of its heyday. Prominent composers of this time had a difficult choice ahead of them. They had to make their decision about continuing their working. Mahler and Rager reached this point, but died sooner than finding the results of their works. Strauss and Phitzner also had some success. Strauss, for example, was determined to use electronic music after creating his two major works, Electra and Salome, and did so with great caution. Phitzner was able to use all his energy to form a new expression and form. Although there are links to late classical periods in his works, his compositions were among the musics that confirmed the end of romantic.

Like any great explorer, Schoenberg, who is between two stages of romance and modernity in terms of era, has committed himself to organizing the recent crisis of romance and paving the way for the worldview of modern music.

By reviewing the early works of Schoenberg, modern mediocre composers and even fanatical avant-garde acknowledge that he led music to the regular and extensive twelve-tone technique. The emergence of this twelve-tone technique paved the way for Stravinsky's recognition in the later periods. This technique, in addition to determining the future path of Schoenberg, gained more credibility over time.

Stravinsky experienced all new forms of music in his work. Even at the height of these searches, he establishes undeniable links with traditional music.

Twelve-tone system and serial method:

The twelve-tone system is a composition method based on the specific use of twelve notes of chromatic scale. This system changes all previous and traditional rules, and these changes are not accidental and optional. They have new rules while they are also free.

The chromatic scale is made up of twelve separate notes with semitone intervals, and is quite different from the classical music tonality, which has certain rules and does not use a key. Wagner and later Mahler, in particular, reinforced their harmonic thumbboards using chromatic scales, although they still benefited from the given key framework. Schoenberg used the original chromatic scale as an element of the original composition, regardless of the key. He put aside the diatonic scale, the tones and the semitones and the music Maqam. More importantly, the twelve-note chromatic scale became completely independent and had no function other than its single sound. It did not take long for this style to take precedence over the old system such as dominance, tonic, leader note, and harmonic and melodic rules. Hence, he created a system of twelve-note or atonal music (without Maqam), and such a new expression of democratic equality, among the musical steps, made Schoenberg’s work from 1907 to 1912 atonal, although at this time, such an idea did never go beyond theory. This first phase was regarded as Schoenberg Reform.

The second phase was the formation of a new atonality system. This system (series) forms the composition of the twelve-tone system, whether it is a pure piano song or a five-act opera. To shape this serial system, the twelve-tone (semitone) scale is set by the composer so that each note sounds only once in sequence, and its components can be reversed, forward or backward with different notes on different acts.

Aesthetics of style of Schoenberg’s works:

Assuming such a technique as pure mathematics is completely normal. Throughout his life, Schoenberg insisted that heart should lead brain. He was a proponent of expression in all respects and was, in fact, one of Germany's greatest expressionist musicians.

In his early works, he freely expressed his views. These ideas have a rich emotional expression that is even richer than the language of Mahler and Wagner. There are several works belonging to Schoenberg from the post-Wagner period. These works include: Zwei Gesänge Dark Night (whose purpose in presenting this work was to establish a kind of closeness with the two musical poles of the period, Wagner and Brahms), Opus No. 4, based on a pre-expressionist poem by Richard Demel; Pelléas and Mélisande, and Gore’s songs for solo singers, choirs and orchestras based on the Danish epic of the Middle Ages. The first quartet is directly Romantic, and can be said to be even closer to Beethoven's Romanticism. The beginning of evolution towards atonality can be seen in his second string quartet; Here, a soprano voice is introduced in the last two movements, where it refers to the twelve-tone act.

There are different methods in his chamber symphony (1906). This work not only emphasizes expression, but also uses facilities, and instead of a huge orchestra (which was common at the time), Schoenberg used only fifteen solo instruments. Hangende Garten’s songs and lyrics, based on the poems of Stephen Georg (1908), were previously atonal, although they have not yet been properly arranged, and have created a second stage in the works of Schoenberg. With piano pieces Opus 11 and 19 with the mono-drama Expectation (1909), about a woman who discovers the dead body of her love, and the Lucky Hand Drama with music (1908-13) his works are consolidated. This period of his works is known as the stage of anarchy and unlimited freedom. During this period, he benefited from the semi-verbal and semi-vocal methods of declamation, which he called literary verbal- song, or vocal with words. And such an example can be seen in the Pierrot lunaire.

The beginning of the third stage of his works is determined by the announcing his composition theory, and he immediately implemented this twelve-tone theory with piano pieces.

Including Opus 23; Serenade, Opus 24, Suite for piano, Opus 25. We have now moved from the stage of dodecaphonic (twelve-tone method) to the serial technique. The peak of this stage is clear in the wind instruments quintet (1924).

In the fourth stage of this evolution, this violent form becomes more flexible, and his music is even linked to previous classical music. Among his works is his third string quartet, but especially in orchestral variations, Opus 31, he again uses the great orchestra and classical formal methods and pays attention to Bach's style.

In the fifth stage, which is more or less related to Schoenberg's residence in the United States, his technique becomes even more flexible, so that the musical or tonal Maqam (melody type) can be seen in the serial form. Works of this stage include Wind Orchestra Variations, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for voice, piano and string quartet and a Survivor from Warsaw (1947). And the last of them is a cantati with vocal, Chorus and Orchestra, which embody the tragedy of the Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw.

It was in the final stage that Schoenberg showed a strong penchant for religion, a trend that manifested itself in a variety of ways. First in Moses and Heron, which began in 1930, and never completed its third act. This opera, a combination of all of Schoenberg's styles, is one of his masterpieces, staged in 1957 in Zurich, in 1959 in Berlin, and in 1965 in Covet, Garden.

But in his later works, Schoenberg pays attention to the works of the past, such as: Prelude to Genesis Suite, the CXXX Psalms and the Modern Psalms (the poem is by himself) for recitative rhetoric, chorus and orchestra, whose death prevented its release.

Schoenberg’s work has two aspects. In his view, these works were one of the strangest events that can occur for a musician. From a purely artistic point of view, the result is different. Some believe that his works are constantly evolving, while others believe that he first invented his method, then was unable to use his invention such that instead of creating a new musical language for the new forms that he had created, he used old forms and never managed to get rid of the burden of romanticism.

After Schoenberg, his student, Alban Berg, also tried to abandon music of the past and turn to atonal music. However, his evolution was also in line with that of his master: tonal and atonal; The chaos of dodecaphonic (twelve-tone method), the serial dodecaphonic and finally the application of serial music in a developed tonal framework. Berg was an expressionist composer and always had an inclination toward Schumann and Mahler's Romanticism: he could not be considered a pioneer of any kind of music. He added nothing to the music of his time except for an exciting description of emotion. Berg was essentially a follower of Schoenberg’s technique, and like his master, he was never able to free himself from previous forms.

Anton Webern:

Webern, who remained unknown in his home country and even among avant-garde musicians, was the first composer to take full advantage of Schoenberg’s style. He was Schoenberg’s first student, and perhaps Webern’s contribution to music can be described as that if Schoenberg discovered a new language, it was Webern who reconstructed the forms, the methods of its arrangement, and sought to create an emotional musical language. He inspired Stravinsky who has also spent time composing serials and techniques for twelve-tone composers.

Now we investigate seven special features of the music in this era:

1. The diatonic scale is eliminated by the sensitive tone system and is replaced by chromatic degrees. In this analysis, no note is central, and each chromatic note has the same character as the main note. In other words, twelve semitones of equal value are combined, the significance of none of which is measured by the central note (freedom of tonality).

2. Application of harmonic degrees in any form. That is, instead of a predetermined mode or a function of continuation of chords, there are chords that are used to guide the sounds and make the horizontal line more attractive, so that each tone can connect freely to the other tones (independence of dissonance).

3. The rhythm underwent subtle changes, such that various combinations were made using it and the importance of comparison with metric was reduced.

4. Melody found significant expansion. Especially the major seventh, the minor ninth, and the minor second found particular attraction.

5. By focusing more on the form and expression of the music, the repetition of notes was avoided, and the automatic was presented with a concise and short expression in the composition. The peak of Schoenberg’s work of art was creation of expectation monodrama. With the utmost emphasis on meaning and concept, he expanded it and created an atheistic style.

6. The variation technique came in different forms to help construct form and with special delicacy, it made the motifs more prominent than before and made it visible.

7. All of these items led to the charm and authority of music more than before and introduced Schoenberg as the true founder and completer of Expressionism in music.

Philosophy of Modern Art and the Aesthetics of Atonal Music from the Outlook of Theodore Adorno:

“The relationship between the work of art and society is comparable to the concept of Monad Leibniz”, Adorno wrote in an introduction to the sociology of music. The work of art, and especially the work of music, which is far from concepts, without a link to society, that is without knowing it, turns into expressive without being consistently and necessarily accompanied by this need.” For example, when he defended “expressionist apprehension”, he cited the reason for his defense as “correct expression of apprehension of life in modern society.” He noted this point many times about Schoenberg’s music.

Some of Adorno’s most important writings on art are specifically about music. He has authored a book on the philosophy of modern music, as well as books on Mahler, Wagner, Berg, and many other articles on music, which have been published in several volumes. Adorno himself was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, was acquainted with Anton Webern and Alban Berg, played the piano well, and wrote pieces in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone style for chamber instruments. In writing the novel of Dr. Fastus, Thomas Mann benefited the presence of him in terms of music. According to Adorno, music in its structure reflects social contradictions. The main difference in today’s musical expression is not between light music and classical music. The difference is between the music that is made for the market and the music that is not made for that purpose.

In the same book, Adorno distinguished between the work of two famous musicians of his time, defended Schoenberg’s music, and attacked Igor Stravinsky’s music. In his view, Schoenberg, with his Atonal music, and then with his twelve-tone music, introduced the internal and structural contradictions as being indistinguishable, and gave the musical reality the same aspect of fear that emerges from social reality. Hence, his music expressed human self-alienation, not the imaginary creator of a complete and finished reality. Schoenberg showed that pure reality does not exist like pure language. His music demands that the listener spontaneously creates the essence of the inner movement, and asks him not only to enjoy the auditory pleasure of contemplation, but also to focus on praxis and creation. Musical praxis means the listener’s role in constructing the musical form through prediction of future of the piece; in Atonal and Twelve-tone music usually, the difficult aspect of which enhances the possibility of listener’s mental engagement with a changeable structure. Adorno believed that Stravinsky’s work was a conservative return to tonal music. Tonal music is a work that encounters an uncritical musical tradition. This music is, in itself, a denial of contradictions and the alienation of modern life. Adorno generally criticized the star-making system and the music written for sale in the marketplace, and contrasted mass art with modern art.

In his article “Fetish Character in Music and Regression of Listening”, mass art and cultural products semi-automate the function of the audience’s mind, take that mind into their own hands, and severely limit the liberating element of art, imagination. In this way, implicit meanings are limited, and the possibility of independent thinking is eliminated. The artistic codes are reduced to their conventional and well-known codes, and repetitive situations, stereotypes, and uniform and standard narratives emerge.

The unfinished topics raised by his death in aesthetic theory were the ones he had always been interested in: expressionism, modern art, twelve-tone music, and a new case, Samuel Beckett’s plays, that Adorno wanted to present the book to him. In Beckett’s work, Adorno found a conscious resistance to aesthetics, saying that Beckett’s modernism was against the dominant form of communication, as well as the false totality of what is called culture, but in fact no trace of culture can be found in it.

In Adorno’s theory of aesthetics, he presented his final view, which at first sight is astonishing: the necessity of aesthetics elimination in art. He wrote that art must be detached from the context of the mythical, ritual, and rites in which it was developed, and find its inner evolutionary path. He chose the escape of Schoenberg’s music from the rules of musical expression that seemed very wise, and chose the example of Beckett’s plays to escape the dilemma outlined by Benjamin: either art with ritual manifestation or mass art. Adorno sought a new expression that does not follow the law of the market, but could also deviate from the ritual source of artistic manifestation. The philosophy of modern music also ends with this sentence: “Art, perhaps, achieves originality where it completely frees itself from the concept of originality. That is, the concept which dictates it must be so and not otherwise.”

Adorno believed that modern art proved Kant’s principle of the independence of art, and that this principle is now correct as a metaphysical conception of the artistic experience of modernity. Modernism has revealed that the non-modern aspect of art, which Adorno calls affirmative, is ideological. He wrote that affirmative art could do nothing but neutralize hostile forces, but that modern art, apart from its shortcomings, was critical and negative, and did not deny or conceal hostility.

The relationship between cinema and atonal music:

According to the explanations given in the first part and its comparison with the second part, an immediate conclusion is formed in the mind, and that any opposition to the cinematic rules established by Hollywood, cinematic geniuses or studios is in line with the relationship between cinema and atonal music and the definition of modern art according to Adorno.

Some of the features of this type of doomed classic cinema, according to Adorno, are; Making a film based on the audience’s mental needs and providing the necessary materials for carefree perception by invisibility of all filmmaking techniques so that in many parts of the film, the viewer forgets the act of watching the film and sees it as an experience of the real world.

Examples of filmmakers who opposed this system:

The origins of modernist cinema, and especially Antonioni modernist cinema in the 1960s and 1970s have been based on the same attitude toward art and music. It is not possible to prove with certainty that it has entered the cinema from music, but the interaction of all the arts in different eras shows that it is important that Antonioni, along with his screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, used other arts especially the changes that took place After World War II in music to create his modernist cinema. If we look closely at cinema, we will see this effect on the level of narration and the included themes. Of course, due to the harmony of the form and content of modernism that Adorno designed, these are also observed in the directorship aesthetics issues.

The narrative features of the 1960s onward Anthony films is at the beginning of the removal of the third screen and the complete failure of the story to be fully answered by the film’s plot; in this regard, there are many anti-plot films that do not intend to tell a continuous story both before and after the set of Antonioni’s films, including films of Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Modernism, Postmodernism, etc., which revolted against the Hollywood storytelling system. They create a general sense in sections that deal with abstraction and create a world of storytelling for films that seek to tell a story that does not narrate the whole story from beginning to end. Even if they put the second and third screens in place, they will not make the viewer very passive. And by disrupting the chronological order of the story, they avoid the simple expression of the story.

The nonlinear timing with its rules reflects the filmmaker’s greater freedom and abandonment of the linear narrative system, which in itself can be directly or indirectly influenced by atonal music.

However, the explicit attribution of the movement to Antonioni’s works is a manifestation of alienation from self and modern human society within the industrial space of the Europe in 1960s, which is repeated in a common theme under the text and lyrics of his films. This theme which is especially depicted in the 1964 Red Desert Film, where displays the alienation of the film’s main character, who is caught up in this industrial predicament, is directly stemmed from modern art aesthetics according to Antonioni. The contradictions and alienation of modern life was a concept that Adorno understood from Schoenberg's music. Adorno’s remarks suggest that by cinema and the fact that is enhances foolishness, he means Hollywood cinema because it immerses the viewer in the story, which, with the media under control, he believes could be a tool for fascism.

In general, the enactment of law for art is damaging from Adorno’s point of view. In Atonal music, as much as possible, there is an attempt to avoid repetition with a matrix that follows mathematical rules. In other paths, as mentioned earlier, he tries to create complete freedom in making music.

One of the best examples of neglecting classic cinema rules, both in terms of filmmaking style and in mockery of the genre and even the Hollywood broadcasting and cinema system, is the work of Jean-Luc Godard, who exaggerates his opposition in his films.

If we look at the seven features of the tonal system described in Section 1 and compare it with cinema, we find countless examples, all of which reflect the effect of liberation that modern art, especially atonal music, has shown which indicates that art should be personalized and rules should be eliminated and everybody should create his own art.

Abbas Kiarostami believed that just one hour of training was enough to learn cinema, and that anyone could express themselves through cinema. This approach presupposes independent cinema by eliminating the rules for all humans who have a unique aesthetic vision.

Features of the Atonal system in the present age and its impact on film score:

In general, twelve tone system creates a 12-by-12 matrix, which helps us understand how a composer can write a melody that does not have even one repetitive note.

Schoenberg invented a system that is likely to obsolete the tonal system in the future, as it makes it much easier for a composer to use this system than the tonal system, especially if it is carried out with software and synthesizer. In electronic music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pierre Schaefer and Stockhausen invented the synthesizer. It is a piano-like instrument that simultaneously has the sound of all instruments and the sound of their every single note, which is very easy to work with and generally the film score is written with the synthesizer. In this method, the composer no longer has to follow the harmony and theory of classical music, connecting the chords together, and the obstacles and rules that some notes cannot follow others, which made the composition much easier.

In a tonal system, writing a melody involves countless rules and regulations, but in this system, for example, the composer starts with four notes, with different forms, the easiest of which is variation to expand, extend and change the tonality, and repeats those four notes many times in different ways. Variation is also available in the tonal system, but there are many rules for its expansion and extension and it does not have the freedom of work like the atonal system. For example, Philip Glass writes a one-hour music using two notes; Mi-Fa Mi-Fa Mi-Fa Mi-Fa .... R-Do Re-Do Re-Do Re-Do ...

In the tonal system, due to the main tonality and the repetition form and observing the distance of the notes, it is often remembered for the general listener, but the atonal music does not leave a memory in mind after the end of the music, because no note is repeated. For example, if we write a familiar song written in the tonal system in atonal form, we may hear the melody once at the beginning or the end; then, similar notes are heard while it is no longer the same. In this way, even the tone and feeling of sadness or happiness of the music can be changed.

The synthesizer was also made based on the Atonal serialism system.

Serialism, minimalism, random music, and electronic music are subsets of the Atonal system.

In the music of serialism and random music, the end of freedom is possible in a way that, apart from the 12-tone chromatic issue, a system is created that determines the distance between the notes, their tension, dynamics and intensity of the note’s performance.

In today’s film score, minimalism is widely used because it has a very simple style and is easy for the listener to understand, and it is also much easier to write this kind of music than orchestral music, and there is no need for an orchestra or harmony.

The film score is generally made in an atonal way; we hear an overall music in the way that was described. As the scenes change, the music experiences different tonalities, but we often do not notice it when we watch the film. To understand this, it is better to listen to a music album of a film from beginning to end to notice the change in the tonality of the main theme of the film.

Before the atonal system, we could use modulation to go to another tonality in the tonal system, but we had to go back to the main tonality, and the main character of the main tonality was emphasized greatly. However, there is only one melody in the atonal system.

Until modern era, the composer worked only with pen and paper. He had neither a computer to write nor an orchestra to test different melodies, therefore the composer had to master the musical rules as well as the sound of each note by different instruments. For example, if he wrote a song on two majors, he would play seven different notes of Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si in different octaves, and he did not have the freedom to transfer to C major in the middle of the piece.


Saremi, Katayun. (1996). Encyclopedia of World Music Translated from the Larus Classical Music Agency. Tehran: Pishro Publications.

Zandbaf, Hassan. (2008). Classical music in the twentieth century. Tehran: Rozaneh Publications.

Ahmadi, Babak. (2016). Truth and beauty of art philosophy courses. Tehran: Markaz Publications.

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