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Atonality in its broadest sense describes music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality in this sense usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another (Kennedy 1994). More narrowly, the term describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001).

More narrowly still, the term is sometimes used to describe music that is neither tonal nor serial, especially the pre-twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School, principally Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern (Lansky, Perle, and Headlam 2001). According to John Rahn, however, "[a]s a categorical label, 'atonal' generally means only that the piece is in the Western tradition and is not 'tonal' " (Rahn 1980, 1); "serialism arose partly as a means of organizing more coherently the relations used in the preserial 'free atonal' music. ... Thus many useful and crucial insights about even strictly serial music depend only on such basic atonal theory" (Rahn 1980, 2)

Composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Edgard Varèse have written music that has been described, in full or in part, as atonal (Baker 1980 & 1986; Bertram 2000; Griffiths 2001; Kohlhase 1983; Lansky and Perle 2001; Obert 2004; Orvis 1974; Parks 1985; Rülke 2000; Teboul 1995–96; Zimmerman 2002).



While music without a tonal center had been written previously, for example Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité of 1885, it is with the twentieth century that the term atonality began to be applied to pieces, particularly those written by Arnold Schoenberg and The Second Viennese School.

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