Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the development of his twelve-tone system, Arnold Schoenberg provided a systematic organization for atonal music and profoundly influenced the direction of music composition.

Summary of Event

From the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, music—from the simplest melody to the most complex symphony—was tonal. By 1907, however, after arriving at what they considered to be the limits of tonality, composers began to experiment with atonality. In 1923, Arnold Schoenberg premiered his twelve-tone organizational system, or dodecaphony, and thereby provided a bold new alternative for all future music composition. Music;atonality Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] Dodecaphony Serialism [kw]Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System (1921-1923) [kw]Twelve-Tone System, Schoenberg Develops His (1921-1923)[Twelve Tone System, Schoenberg Develops His (1921 1923)] [kw]Tone System, Schoenberg Develops His Twelve- (1921-1923) Music;atonality Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] Dodecaphony Serialism [g]Austria;1921-1923: Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System[05360] [g]United States;1921-1923: Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System[05360] [c]Music;1921-1923: Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System[05360] Schoenberg, Arnold Berg, Alban Webern, Anton von Stravinsky, Igor Stockhausen, Karlheinz

In Western tonal music, one pitch or note out of the twelve chromatic notes is central to the composition and is called the tonal center, or tonic. All other notes seem to gravitate toward the tonal center and are in fact grouped in hierarchical order of importance around it. This organization determines the composition’s key. Each key, or scale, consists of seven notes—the remaining five are peripheral and de-emphasized—and forms the basis from which all melody and harmony is derived. Because notes are at relative intervals from one another, one can transpose a composition into any key by changing the tonic but retaining the same relative distance between remaining pitches. In the 1920’s, after abandoning the tonal center and providing an alternative system of harmonic organization, Schoenberg fundamentally altered the prevailing conviction that music requires tonality.

A native of Vienna, Schoenberg was heir to the compelling musical tradition of the nineteenth century, Romanticism. Music;Romanticism Thoroughly German in nature and in origin and in striking contrast to classicism, which presupposed the universality of emotion, Romanticism emphasized intense individual experience, including even the mystical realm of the subconscious. In their quest for emotional expression, late Romantic composers, most notably Richard Wagner, Wagner, Richard strained against the limits of traditional tonality. Emphasizing modulation (changes from one key or tonality to another) and chromaticism (greater use of the secondary notes between the principal notes of any key), Wagner attained the apogee of emotionalism and expression, yet all of Wagner’s compositional techniques functioned within tonality.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, many non-German composers, aided by a disillusionment with the pitfalls of extreme sentimentality and maudlin emotionalism seemingly inevitable in Romanticism and motivated by turbulent political and economic trends in the two decades before World War I, sought new forms of musical expression. In the post-Romantic era, several new styles emerged. A late nineteenth century resurgence of nationalism encouraged many composers, particularly those from countries without native historical musical traditions, to seek new forms of musical expression. The Russians Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky, the Czech Antonín Dvořák, the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the American Charles Ives, for example, incorporated traditional folk songs in their compositions, wooing listeners from German Romanticism. Others, such as Gustav Holst, who was fascinated by Hindu mysticism, experimented with non-Western music. In France, a coterie of composers, most notably Claude Debussy, influenced by the Impressionist painters, developed a French Impressionist tradition of composition, shunning the extreme emotionalism and grandiloquence of German Romanticism and embracing a delicate, evocative sensuality—in a sense, a more discreet French Romanticism.

In Germany and Austria, meanwhile, composers who were heir to German Romanticism continued writing in the Romantic style. Led by Schoenberg and influenced by the expressionist painters (including Schoenberg, whose paintings were already selling for high prices), these composers formed the expressionist school of composition. Whereas French Impressionists sought a more discreet Romanticism, expressionism was passionate and unabashedly emotional. Focusing on the inner experiences of human beings, expressionism was also preoccupied with the subconscious world of dreams as described by the Austrian Sigmund Freud in his comparatively new psychoanalytic theory.

In his early compositions, following in the path forged by Wagner, Schoenberg explored the extreme limits of chromaticism by using large ensembles and lengthy Romantic musical forms. Soon, however, his post-Romantic expressionism became atonal. It appeared that Wagner had carried musical expression to the limits of tonality, and a logical progression from Wagnerian chromaticism was toward atonality. The dissolution of tonality, however, required the abandonment of the traditional rules of composition. To provide an organizational framework for his atonality, therefore, Schoenberg developed his twelve-tone system. It was, he claimed, born of necessity.

It took Schoenberg several years of experimentation to systematize atonality. By 1923, in his Five Piano Pieces, Five Piano Pieces (Schoenberg) Op. 23, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system made its first appearance. For several years, he continued refining the system. His Suite for Piano, Suite for Piano (Schoenberg) Op. 25 (1924), marked the first use of the twelve-tone system as the structural basis for an entire composition, and the Wind Quintet, Wind Quintet (Schoenberg) Op. 26, also from 1924, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn, was the first atonal composition for several instruments. By the time of his Variations for Orchestra, Variations for Orchestra (Schoenberg) Op. 31, written between 1926 and 1928, Schoenberg had thoroughly explored and mastered his dodecaphonic system.

In providing structure for atonal compositions, Schoenberg’s system grants equal emphasis to all twelve chromatic tones, which are presented in a series, or row. The pitches of the “tone row” are uniquely ordered for each composition. The row, with its peculiar sequence of intervals, must be played in sequence; notes can sound in any octave but cannot be repeated until the whole series has been played. Lest the system seem constricting or mechanical, the composer achieves variety by using the row in four forms: original, retrograde, inverted, and retrograde inversion. Additionally, the row can be divided into subgroups. Denoting a method, not a form of composition, dodecaphony can in theory be applied to any style of music. Initially, however, it was associated exclusively with Schoenberg and his pupils.

Retrospectively, the twelve-tone system appears a logical progression from the post-Wagnerian dissolution of tonality. In context, however, Schoenberg’s system was revolutionary. It would, Schoenberg claimed prophetically, ensure German dominance in music for another century. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony did, in fact, profoundly influence music composition in the twentieth century.


In the 1920’s, public acceptance of Schoenberg’s revolutionary new system was woefully lacking. Shouting and booing at his concerts made listening virtually impossible, and fistfights among members of his audiences became common. Essentially a self-taught Viennese musician from a marginally middle-class family, Schoenberg never functioned within the mainstream of the Vienna musical establishment. Audiences and critics alike despised his music. Despite a lack of public support, however, Schoenberg received sanction from some of Vienna’s most influential composers, most notably Gustav Mahler, Mahler, Gustav who acted as his mentor. Mahler’s attendance at Schoenberg’s early concerts lent a modicum of credibility to the young composer’s works.

In a bid to make his music more accessible to Viennese audiences, Schoenberg in 1918 conducted ten open rehearsals of his First Chamber Symphony, First Chamber Symphony (Schoenberg) Op. 9 (1906). By providing the public with multiple opportunities to hear the symphony as well as to hear Schoenberg discuss it, the well-attended rehearsals successfully bolstered public approval of the music. Encouraged, Schoenberg organized the Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen (the Society for Private Musical Performances) to increase the number of performances of his own works and the works of his contemporaries as well as to provide a protected environment for those works in which critics were banned. Slowly, Schoenberg’s work gained greater public acceptance.

Although later audiences greeted his work with greater aplomb than did the conservative Viennese of the 1920’s, Schoenberg’s music failed to attain great popularity throughout the twentieth century. The influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on composers, however, was profound. Whereas the dissolution of atonality required the abandonment of traditional rules of composition, the twelve-tone system provided a new harmonic framework within which atonality could function. As an organizational system, twelve-tone serialism fundamentally shaped music in the twentieth century, as all later serialist music evolved from Schoenberg’s original system.

Until the 1950’s, however, dodecaphony was overshadowed by another major compositional trend, neoclassicism. Music;neoclassicism During the interim between the two world wars, two major factions evolved. One camp formed around Schoenberg and his atonal dodecaphony, with its roots planted firmly in the Romantic tradition of emotional expressionism. The other surrounded Igor Stravinsky and his ardently primitivistic, anti-Romantic neoclassicism. Dodecaphony was a system sufficiently rich in potential to prevail, however, for, unlike neoclassicism, it is not related to any one style; rather, it is a method that can be applied to any musical form. From the 1950’s onward, dodecaphony flourished as neoclassicism declined—even Stravinsky incorporated the technique in his later compositions. Dodecaphony remained a dynamic compositional technique.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method was perpetuated and expanded by several talented pupils. A demanding taskmaster, Schoenberg was accorded high regard by his disciples, who jealously defended their teacher even as their own styles evolved in fundamentally different directions. While tutoring his pupils in his own method, Schoenberg nurtured the younger composers’ individuality. Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s acuity and compositional ability became legendary among his students, as he composed rapidly and copiously in their presence. Not content merely to identify students’ mistakes, Schoenberg would instantaneously devise possible musical solutions for their edification.

Of all Schoenberg’s students, Anton von Webern and Alban Berg became the most famous. Both became accomplished serialist composers whose music differed substantially from each other’s and from their teacher’s. Beginning their instruction with Schoenberg in 1904, they explored with him chromaticism, atonality, and ultimately dodecaphony, progressively embracing each method. While following their teacher in his forays into the twelve-tone system, the two students formed vastly personal styles. Berg applied his master’s methods with great freedom, using tone rows and tonal-sounding chords and thereby retaining vital connections with lyrical Romanticism. His lyric opera Wozzeck (1925), with its nearly tonal rows and forms adapted from classicism, is a perennial favorite. Webern, in contrast, exemplified the more progressive potential of dodecaphony. Writing principally for chamber music ensembles, he used sparse instrumentation that focused on individual melody. Unlike Schoenberg and Berg, however, Webern abandoned the classic forms to write music that was athematic and devoid of tonality.

Gathering at the summer composers’ program in Darmstadt, Germany, from 1946 to 1953, a contingent of young composers inspired by Webern perpetuated and refined Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Most notable was Karlheinz Stockhausen, who extended the principle of tone rows to incorporate all elements of music, including timbre, rhythm, and dynamics, thus expanding the original twelve-tone system into a comprehensive system that came to be known as serialism.

As his influence was spreading in Europe, Schoenberg found his career in Austria and Germany abruptly curtailed by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent banning of twelve-tone music. In 1933, Schoenberg, a Jew, emigrated to the United States to escape Hitler’s tyranny. It was through his teaching posts in Boston and at the University of California that Schoenberg’s influence on American composers began. From 1933 to his death in 1951, Schoenberg taught a battery of new composers, including Leon Kirchner and John Cage. His influence on Americans was immense, and his work affected even composers who had never been his pupils (most notably Roger Sessions, who further developed the twelve-tone technique). Unlike Stockhausen, who rigidly adhered to the techniques of serialism, Sessions incorporated dodecaphony into his music, which was a mixture of several influences.

It has been suggested that Schoenberg was the most influential composer of the twentieth century. Even in the early twenty-first century, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system remains a dynamic force. With members of each new generation of composers incorporating serialist techniques into their compositions, Schoenberg’s reputation continues to grow. Music;atonality Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] Dodecaphony Serialism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auner, Joseph. A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A collection of Schoenberg’s essays, letters, and other writings, as well as paintings and drawings, many previously unpublished or untranslated. Extensive commentary places these materials in context and addresses important themes throughout Schoenberg’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copland, Aaron. The New Music, 1900-1960. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. New edition of a work originally written in 1944 includes additional commentary by the author. Readable and informative introduction to new music for the general public written by a major American composer. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. “Atonality, Serialism, and Recent Developments in Twentieth-Century Europe.” In A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Accessible to the nonspecialist, although found within a textbook for college music majors. Covers the full range of Schoenberg’s innovations and offers explanations that are models of clarity. Provides a balanced overview with examples, illustrations, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Peter S. An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1978. Survey of twentieth century music includes individual chapter bibliographies, index, and numerous musical examples. Useful, readable source for the nonspecialist who is able to read musical notation. Provides detailed discussion of Schoenberg’s music and its context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leibowitz, Rene. Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music. Translated by Dika Newlin. 1949. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. An older work in lecture format, but engaging and informative. Requires no extensive specialized knowledge. Describes the development of atonality and includes sections on Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rognoni, Luigi. The Second Vienna School: Expressionism and Dodecaphony. Translated by Robert W. Mann. London: John Calder, 1977. Detailed work traces the transition from tonality through atonality to the twelve-tone system. Intended for the specialist with knowledge of harmony and theory but accessible to the nonspecialist as well. Includes illustrations, musical examples, footnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. Survey of twentieth century music aimed primarily at the specialist but appropriate also for the informed nonspecialist with substantial knowledge of music history and theory. Useful section on the impact of Schoenberg’s music. Includes illustrations, individual chapter bibliographies, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shawn, Allen. Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. A brief introduction to Schoenberg and his music intended for the lay reader. Covers the highlights of Schoenberg’s life and their relation to his major works. The final chapter analyzes Schoenberg’s influence on twentieth century music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Joan A. Schoenberg and His Circle: A Viennese Portrait. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986. Product of a nontechnical oral history project designed to preserve the memories of several individuals, including pupils, involved in Schoenberg’s “Vienna circle.” A useful introduction to Schoenberg and his music, providing insights into Schoenberg’s character and descriptions of the reception of his music in Vienna. Includes illustrations, footnotes, bibliography, and index.

Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality

Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres

Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin

Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich

Categories: History