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Twelve-Tone Music

     Also known as Dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, as an aftermath of “free atonality”, as a way to replace the structural differentiations present in the tonal system. The core of the twelve-tone system is the tone row or the series that consists in an ordered arrangement of the twelve chromatic pitches. Each of the pitches can only be played once until all the other pitches are introduced.

     However, repeating or alternating with a previous note while playing the series is allowed. Instead of using note names or cyphers, you will see the twelve chromatic pitches represented by numbers that range from 0 to 11, being 0 a C, 1 is a C#, and so on. Below you will find how to derive material from the tone row, also referred to as transformations:

  • Prime – it is the original set; how the composer chooses to order the tone row
  • Retrograde – the prime or original set in reverse order  
  • Inversion – the inversion of the original set    
  • Retrograde Inversion – the reverse order of the inversion

     The result of all these procedures can also be transposed. The notes of the series can be used to build chords and there is no rule as to how the notes can arranged and you will also find that tone rows can be combined.

     There are many procedures associated to how the tone rows can be used and recycled. In music, “rules” should only be guidelines and that is why, even while using this technique, these were broken in order to serve the musical intent of the composer. For instance, there is no obligation in using chords built by a particular sequence of the tone row or any of its transformations. A composer is free to use whatever chord material he/she sees fit, or even blend this technique with others – derived from tonal or atonal practices.

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