Post-Tonal Harmony

     In the beginning of the twentieth century, the tonal system was already falling apart due to the extreme use of chromaticism and post-tonal is a term that is used for music that doesn’t follow the traditional conventions of tonal harmony. However, it doesn’t mean that post-tonal music is completely devoid of tonal centricity. In fact, it may focus on a pitch or a pitch collection but there is a different treatment and relationship with those pitches.

     Harmony-wise, while traditional voice-leading guidelines were not discarded completely, these are now considered more like possibilities for the composer rather than rules – parallel harmonic movement or dissonances that don’t have to be resolved are some of the acceptable musical procedures.

     Generally, commonly used chord formations include, but not limited to, split chords, open fifths (because they produce a loose sense of key if the third is not on the chord), extended chords, quartal, secundal, clusters or polychords.

     The harmonic material tends to avoid the traditional harmonic implications by suspending tonality (a musical passage with unclear or ambiguous tonality), or making brief tonicizations(*); using real parallel chord sequences; non-functional chord successions; chromatic mediant relationships; unresolved dissonances; using several tritone relationships and using symmetric divisions of the octave as a basis for chord construction and melodies – see symmetric scales.

     Regarding the melodic treatment, it includes more leaps, more chromaticism, recurrent use of motifs (melodic and/or harmonic – such material could also be transposed and/or inverted), twelve-tone melodies and, overall, the usage of less conventional rhythm with ambiguous metric organization.


     A tonicization consists in using a chord or a chord progression that shifts the gravity from a former tonic to a new one in a brief period of time so that the first tonic center does not completely loose its pull.

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