No. 196 Winter 2004       Greenwich Publ. Saskatoon, Sask.       FAX: 306-244-0795 / TEL: 244-0679         ISSN 0704-6588
The False "Science" of Modern Atonal Music
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" to us.'
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 this:
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.
Here's how:
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, (and Eb)
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, C
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 knowledge.
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.
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.
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 Flute;  & more.
URLs for related items are found at:
Material here is based on book/bibliography at:
 -- by Bob Fink,
1829 Arlington Ave., Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7H 2Y9
Tel#(306)-244-0679 [Or 931-2189]
       "The hallmark of great science is that it reduces complexity into simplicity"
-- Bruce Stillman, director: Cold Spring Harbor (molecular biology) Laboratory, N. Y.

© Robert Fink, 2004 -- Author has appeared in many journals, including Science magazine; Scientific American; Archaeologia Musicalis; Studies in Music Archaeology III [book] & innumerable news articles [Globe & Mail; The Times of London; Ottawa Citizen (10/28/02 "Enchanted Ear"); Magazine cover stories (e.g., Alberta newsweekly: Western Report, 5/5/97), etc]. Author of two books (1970 & 2004) on the origins of music. Several citations in Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) collected Essays: Origins of Music. Invited to serve as juror for Nature Journal regarding ancient music articles.

This article translated to Haitian Creole HERE.