Twelve-tone technique

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The twelve-tone technique (otherwise known as dodecaphony) is a method of composition invented by Arnold Schoenberg. The method involves ordering all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in a non-repetitive order (known as tone rows) so that no tone sounds more than any other and emphasis on any one note is avoided. All twelve notes are thus given, more or less, equal importance in a piece. Throughout history, several other composers have devised systems that involved using all twelve-tones as well (including one of Schoenberg's very own students, Anton Webern) but Schoenberg's remains the most famous and historically relevant.


The system was first founded in 1921 by Arnold Schoenberg and first discussed privately with his associates in 1923. The system was used almost exclusively by the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg himself) for the next twenty years. Before this, Schoenberg had made a concious effort to write "freely" atonal pieces from 1908-1923. The system was also pre-dated by various other nondedcaphonic systems that managed to avoid partly or almost entirely a sense of tonality by composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and others.

Since, many composers have been inspired by the system. Bartok famous wrote the main theme of the first movement of his second violin concerto to utilize all twelve tones; Bartok explaining that he wanted to show Schoenberg that all twelve-tones could be used while remaining tonal. Samuel Barber also famously used all twelve-tones in a tonal context as a way of sort of merging serialism with tonality. This is most notable in his piano sonata. Stravinsky also famously (after many years of writing strictly neo-classical music) converted to his own usage of twelve-tone technique.

Tone rows

The system is based on tone-rows, an ordered arrangement of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. There are a few guidelines to creating a tone row:

  1. All twelve tones must be used
  2. No note may be repeated within the row until all other notes are heard (trills and tremolos exempt)
  3. The set may be stated in any of its "linear aspects": prime, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde-inversion.
  4. The set in any of its four transformations may be started upon any degree of the semi-tonal scale.

However, it is worth noting that even Schoenberg himself broke these rules in his own compositions from time to time stating that it was only a means of organization and that he would still rely on his own musical sense for aesthetic choices.

Also, while no specific rule was against it, tone rows were discourages from using the intervals of a major or minor third, major or minor sixth, and parallel fifths since these are generally considered consonant tones. Tone rows typically emphasize the intervals of seconds and sevenths. Schoenberg also typically stressed that a certain interval should not be repeated multiple times in a row (such as say using four ascending minor seconds in a row). However, Alban Berg notably broke this rule and created many of his tone rows with tonal allusions to create the illusion (if only brief) of tonality (such as his famous tone-row in his Violin Concerto: G, Bb, D, F#, A, C, E, G#, B, C#, Eb, F).

Notable composers that have used the twelve-tone technique

Famous pieces that utilize the twelve-tone technique

  • Violin Concerto - Alban Berg
  • Lulu (Opera) - Alban Berg
  • Piano Concerto - Arnold Schoenberg
  • Symphony - Anton Webern
  • Score for film "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" - David Shire

See also

Twelve Tone Composition

External links - A brief documentary on the twelve-tone technique - A brief explanation of the system