Atonality is a musical system that
avoids creating a feeling of key or tonality. This feeling can best be
described as a sense that all notes in a melody or composition "belong"
to each other, more or less, and also gives us a feeling there is a beginning,
middle and end to a composition.
But the invention of "atonality" is designed
to arrange notes so that these feelings are avoided.
Atonalist theorists, ever since modern "atonal"
music began, claim this is possible to do because the sense of key we feel
from tonal music is ‘just something socially learned by habit and familiarity
-- we "grew up" with tonal music, and so it sounds "right"
But these claims are contradicted by the basics of
physiology and acoustics. When the simplest basics of these sciences
are accurately understood, then we find that tonality or a sense of "key"
is founded in nature, based largely on what we call "overtones"
in music. As follows:
Whenever a single note, like "Middle C," is played, we actually
hear several notes at once, called "overtones."
They're very faint, and even though we think we're hearing a single
note C, we still hear its overtones: The overtones are a mixture of
different weaker tones telling us, for ex., we're hearing a "C"
by a trumpet instead of a piano or a voice -- but sounding like the same
"single" note of middle C.
The higher the overtones are, the less loud they are. The human
ear can only hear the first few overtones of any note played. Except for
a tuning fork, all musical notes made by voices or instruments
will produce their own overtones.
The meaning of these scientific facts , as initially outlined in my
books on the origin of music, appear to be this:
The basic musical scale & its tonality (meaning a scale form
in which there are strong and weak notes, rather than all notes seeming
to be equally important) probably arose in the most ancient times like
We hear the octave as the loudest overtone of any note, such as middle
C. Next loudest [& different] note would be a tone matching
what is the fifth note of a scale, namely the "fifth." In the
scale of C, this would be G.
The note that produces middle C as its audible overtone would
match the 4th scale note, F.
This creates what is now called the tonic (or its octave), the
fifth, and the fourth, steps (or "intervals") in
the scale when they are played out loud as separate notes. These three
intervals come from the most noticeable of the overtones.
The tonic, fourth and fifth are found in the music and scales of
all cultures in all periods of human music making.
When each of the intervals is sounded as separate notes, they, in turn,
have their own overtones. The loudest of ALL these will clue in
the rest of the notes found in the most widely known scales in the world
and in history.
This also explains how there are strong & weak notes in the scale,
why there are only 2 halftones in the scale, why notes historically entered
the scale when they did...and much more.
If you write out the overtones of these three intervals and string
out the three most audible (different) overtones of each, within
the span of an octave, you can get the major scale ( I've left out
the repeated octave overtones and inaudible overtones as redundant):
TONIC C: Overtones:
C, G, E, (& Bb, then inaudible)
FIFTH G: Overtones:
G, D, B, (and F)
FOURTH F:Overtones: F, C, A,
Major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
If you substitute the three weakest ones (the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes
of the scale) with another three notes (which includes the even weaker
next overtones), and which are flatter, you get the minor scale.
(The 6th note above is strongest of the three because it forms no halftones
with adjacent notes in the major scale):
Minor scale: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb,
Now, if you leave these two -- the 3rd and 7th notes -- out altogether,
you get what's called the "Chinese scale" -- or the piano's "black
notes" pentatonic 5-note scale -- found also in Africa, old Scottish
and Irish folk music, and elsewhere:
Pentatonic scale: C, D,
F, G, A, C
Because those two overtones are very weak, they were the last to come
into the scale, and how to tune them was a matter of historic uncertainty
-- and many people tuned them somewhere between minor and major (in the
‘cracks' on the piano), producing what are known as "blue"
or "neutral" notes.
The process of adding halftones into the pentatonic scale took place
in China, in Scottish music, elsewhere, and even the names given to
these notes in different cultures are similar: "passing,"
"becoming," "leading" notes.
When you further consider the advent of harmony you'll see that the
first three different overtones of the notes shown (or of any note) add
up to that note's major chord. There has been use of mostly the
three chords of the tonic, dominant(5th) and subdominant (4th)) to harmonize
all the 7 scale-notes in most of the folk melodies known. This further
underscores that these three universal intervals and their overtones were
fundamental semiconscious influences in the evolution of the scale's notes.
Harmony evolved as a means to enhance the inner overtone relationships
between scale notes. Even the names that evolved for them are perfect
representations of their acoustic or tonal role, even though the names
("dominant" "sub-dominant" & "keynote /
tonic") were also coined by people without acoustical
Now either all this is the greatest coincidence on earth
-- that is, people who knew nothing of acoustics coming up with scales
reflecting all these acoustic properties purely by chance
-- or else, in fact, the ear was already able to discern sounds as distinct
between harmonious or dissonant because the ear could hear these acoustic
properties without having to consciously know they existed.
CONSONANCE & DISSONANCE
Any octave of any note has twice the vibrations of that note, and therefore,
has a "ratio" of 2 to 1. A fifth also has a simple ratio [3 to
2], as does the fourth [4 to 3]. When ratios of intervals become less
simple or more complex, then, what we have called "musical"
in history, more and more approaches what most peoples have called
noise or dissonance.
If we play C and F#, for example, that ratio is 17 to 24, and has rarely
(or never) been an interval found in any widely known scale, because it
is considered dissonant, whereas the C and F interval is considered consonant
with its 4 to 3 ratio.
Thus the appreciation of "dominant" consonant notes and
a sense of "key" (tonality) does NOT arise entirely from arbitrary
conditioning nor from social habit, but from the nature of sound itself
and the nature of human hearing.
A role remained for using dissonance as an esthetic duality to help enhance consonance.
General human evolution has provided us with voices that are acoustically
musical, and with ear receptors that are appreciative of, or attracted
to, acoustically-musical sounds (i.e., not noisy). Why this evolution?
Without these physiological capacities, then:
* Mothers would not coo to their babies; nor would the babies
love the sound of it;
* Nor would evolution of language and the socializing sounds
of the voice have been as possible;
* Nor would the noisy (i.e., not-acoustically musical) sounds from
any nearby destructive event or attack, or of the sounds of breakage, screams
or cries of pain, have served as a noisy warning [unattractive or repelling]
to alarm or alert us -- Some sounds make us come, others make us run....
And, as a result, our collectivized survival might not have been as
efficient, and we could have gone the way of the extinct Dodo.
All those same capacities [regarding being able to distinguish noise
from "musical" sound] also served to allow the development
of musical systems to arise and evolve wherever there were curious people
with time to play or experiment with the stimuli around them.
EVIDENCE NOW SUFFICIENT
The subject of the natural basis of tonality is no longer just theory,
as the physical evidence has grown, including: * The "Father of
Acoustics" Helmholtz' 1877 Sensations of Tone [book]; * Kilmer
& co. 1974: on the Oldest known & diatonic
song; * A study by Trehub et al:Effect
of consonance & dissonance on infants; * Discovery of 9,000
year-old Chinese flutes (one still playable) showing
1,200 year scale evolution -- from 5 notes to 7 & 8 notes like scales
in wide use today; * Discovery of a 5o,ooo year-old Neanderthal Flute:
See 1997 essay on line: Neanderthal