When creating a piece of music, composers have certain frameworks in which to develop their ideas – they’ll select particular keys and will use the tonic (the first note of the scale in any key) as the centre point from which to create melodies and harmonies to help flesh out their piece, for example.


Composing in this way is known as ‘tonal music’ and it provides structure and creates complementary tones that blend well together.

What is atonal music?

However, atonal music rips up this set of ‘rules’, taking a completely different approach, where there are no discernible keys or typical harmonies. Compositions in this style may sound a bit chaotic or even downright weird compared with traditional tonal compositions, but it still takes skill to get it ‘right’.

Who invented atonal music?

The atonal style of music took off in the early 20th century, with Arnold Schoenberg at the forefront of the genre. Schoenberg advocated ’12-tone music’, where each of the 12 tones in the chromatic scale are played only in relation to each other, rather than in relation to a set key. This means – unlike tonal music, which has the tonic at its centre – there is no fixed focal point in this style of atonal music, as each note is given equal importance.


Examples of atonal music

Schoenberg’s work includes Pierrot Lunaire; Variations for Orchestra, and his Six Little Piano Pieces (Opus 19). Other composers who followed in Schoenberg’s footsteps include Alban Berg – his opera Wozzeck and Piano Sonata, for example – and Anton Webern, who composed Klavierstück among other atonal works.