Tonality: More Relevant Than Ever

Tonality: More Relevant Than Ever

“That was really beautiful.” Not a comment I hear too often, but that was the consensus from the various audience members who bothered to seek me out during a recent post-concert reception. I was even asked to autograph someone’s program book—a rarity, to say the least, in this jaded town. So what gives? Why did people respond so well to my new solo piano piece Superdecke Hyperdecke? It certainly couldn’t be the title. My suspicion tells me that the apparent success may be due to the fact that the music is steeped in tonality. Personally, I’ve never really thought about whether or not I was composing tonally or atonally. I mean, I’ve always been aware of things like dissonance and balance, but key signatures and accidentals that carry through an entire measure seem to me a little anachronistic, especially considering the fact that I rarely even use “measures” these days.

Throughout my schooling, I was never persuaded to compose in any particular style or camp. Like everyone else, I sat through undergraduate harmony and counterpoint classes knowing in the back of my mind that this stuff would be as useless in real life as those advanced placement trigonometry and calculus courses in high school. But recently, I’ve grown tired of the particular compositional path I’ve been sauntering down. Let’s call it ironic-superficial-complexity with a conceptual bent and a little dark humor thrown in. I still like the work I created in that vein and I’m not completely leaving it behind, but lately I’ve been overcome by the music I listened to when I was a kid: cheesy disco and new ro. I can’t seem to shake those undulating bass lines that ping pong between octaves, so for the first time, I decided to go there.

Of course we composers are expected to muss things up a bit, or at least bury our influences deep into the fabric of the music. Perhaps my litter box needs changing, I don’t know, but for some reason I decided to leave some rather recognizable body parts unburied. For me, some of the more poignant moments in the piece are when these decaying musical fragments from my tween years bubble to the surface, inducing instantaneous melancholy—at least for someone familiar with one hit wonders like Trans X and Stacey Q, or bands like Duran Duran. But for the pianist, one of these pop riffs sounded like Ravel, and that’s the beauty of tonality, really. With its limited scope, so many ideas and memories can be triggered with three simple notes. Is it me, or has there been a groundswelling trend towards tonal music over the past decade? Or am I just looking at things from a slightly different angle now?

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6 thoughts on “Tonality: More Relevant Than Ever

  1. Mark G. Simon

    It sounds like your issue is not so much tonality, per se, as the use of popular music as compositional material. You may have been trained to believe this was taboo, but obviously popular music has strong associations with your own life experiences, experiences which may be raising emotional issues that you need to deal with at least subconsciously in your compositions.

    I think you should stop fretting and follow your instinct here.

  2. JKG

    God forbid…
    anyone’s music should be heard by the public as “beaituful” or “accessible!” Just kidding – actually, as I recall, audiences for several thousands of years now have been sustaining and appreciative of an art which touches them and brings them to a point of real repose. The only clueless victims of this cultural status quo are the ones who create “art for art’s sake” with no care of who listens to it or what they think of it. Tonality is certainly at the bottom of it, and I see little reason to be coy about that simple fact.

  3. Colin Holter

    Simon raises an interesting point. Sounds like there are at least three separate things about your music that might be operating alone or in combination here:

    1. Is your piece tonal? This is a question not about how it sounds but about how it works – is it cadence-driven? Are leading tones used to reinforce phrase trajectories? Do you move between key areas, even if vaguely defined? If you haven’t employed the syntax of tonality, I don’t think it’s accurate to call the piece tonal. Opinions may vary.

    2. Is your piece consonant? Here’s the sound question. If you avoid ugly harmonies, that’s a good way to get people to like your piece right out of the box – which it sounds like they did.

    3. Did you use familiar materials? Based on your description, it looks like this is probably the case. There’s a satisfaction in the “reveal” when a listener makes the connection between a piece of new music and the Thompson Twins, for example, and perhaps that was part of the piece’s appeal.

    I mention these distinctions because although they’re often bundled together they sure don’t have to be. If you can isolate which of them is in effect in your piece, it might be neat to try a piece which is that one but not the other two. Anyway, congratulations on a successful premiere.

  4. randy

    Hey Colin. Jeeze, there aren’t any yes or no answers to your questions here. I’m not quite sure if what I wrote is tonal, but in some ways it operates in the same way. I purposely “cadenced” on an F# after a beginning section which heavily emphasized B. However, I think what struck people about the opening what the texture—fast staccato, yet fluid, not really loud, but a little intense. Someone told me it reminded her of a “talking drum.”

    Is the work cadence-driven? Well, it has some cadences, most notably at the end of the piece, but some sections meander into one another without any reconciliation. Leading tones? Nope. Move between key areas? At the beginning, yes, but while putting it together, if I were going to call something “tonic” it would be E, which is never really emphasized.

    Consonant? At times yes (the ending) and at other times, hells no! Familiar materials? Yes, familiar to me. But judging by the average age of the audience, I doubt they had any familiarity with Trans X “Living on Video.” The “idea” of octave-jump bass lines was explored but almost as melody, I don’t think it mattered if anyone was thinking Stacy Q “Two of Hearts,” Howard Jones, Human League, or whatever. There is a quote from a not-so-well-known pop song at the piece’s final climax, and it’s in of character with everything that’s happened beforehand. In fact, within the context of my piece, the 3-note riff sounds so grandiose, I don’t think folks would immediately pickup on it. This is a song about emptiness. When it’s transformed into a cadential climax, I think the dots are difficult to connect.

    In the end, I think it’s the interplay of all the factors you mention, Colin. But it’s also the “not knowing what the hell I’m doing” aspect that gave this piece its appeal. It’s unassuming, unpretentious, and in a way, simple. It probably didn’t hurt that it was preceded by an Olga Neuwirth piece.

  5. pgblu

    Now I want to hear this piece. Please put it up on a website and send us a link. That will both end the silly and start the interesting discussion. Or just a score? I don’t know. The point I’m making is that the word tonality is meaningless by itself, as are the words consonance, cadence, key area, and groove.

  6. randy

    Yeah, it’s hard to talk about a piece of music that you’ve never heard, and I’ve only heard once. Unfortunately it wasn’t recorded. I’ll bring my minidisc recorder to the next performance, but that’s not until November. The score wouldn’t help that much—the performer brings a lot of interpretation to the material, which isn’t yet fixed in standard notation.


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