We usually think about key and scale in a very strict, closed off fashion. Even if you’re not too hot on music theory – and there’s nothing wrong with that – the sixth sense you develop for which notes to use in your tracks will tend to revolve around things working in comparison to a root note.
Twelve tone music, developed by Arnold Schoenberg, is different, in that all twelve semitones of the chromatic scale are used equally, so there’s no sense of a root note, or tonic. You might think that this would sound like a jarring mess, but well written twelve tone can be pretty amazing. Listen to this piece by Bill Evans:
Writing twelve tone is almost like completing a sudoku puzzle; each note must relate to the one next to it, but each of the twelve notes can only be used once in a row (twelve tone even calls these tone rows). Each row contains an equal amount of the same elements, but in a different order, so once again you come up against the rule that each note is different and relative to the one next to it, and it doesn’t really matter which way up a sudoku square is, it will still ‘work’ – this is somewhat analogous to inversions and retrograde versions of a tone row, as they still fit into the ruleset both upside down and backwards.
We found this interesting and informative article that illustrates how to get your head around composing in twelve tone – take a look! Even if you don’t go all out with the creation of a twelve tone piece it’s an interesting concept to read up on, and links in with how and why devices like key changes in tonal music work. If you do have a go, we’d love to hear the results!
We’ll leave you with another piece. Delightful!