The term was first used to describe the pre-twelve tone works of the Second Viennese School composers; Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. Anton Webern (originator of what would later be known as "Serialism") also famously stated that he believed that, even in strictly twelve-tone works, a tonal center was still present. Nonetheless, despite the controversy, atonality is a term that is still widely used today. The term has also been used to describe music from composers such as Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and Alexander Scriabin. However, Bartok and Hindemith both publicly stated their hatred for the term; deeming it "unnatural".
There is no right or wrong way to compose atonally. Whether one subscribes to what is termed "strict atonality" or "free atonality", one must follow certain precepts to achieve the total equality of pitches.
- The twelve tone technique was preceded by Schoenberg's "freely" atonal pieces of 1908–1923 which, though "free", often have as an "integrative element...a minute intervallic cell" which in addition to expansion may be transformed as with a tone row, and in which individual notes may "function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells" (Perle 1977, 2).
- Twelve-tone techniques shares with free atonality premises including the general avoidance of a key or the overemphasis of one note, and some of the rules of twelve-tone technique are designed to ensure this, such as the non-repetition of a pitch before the statement of all other pitches in the row. Twelve-tone practices differ from previous atonal practices in two important ways: all pitches are used and ordered.