What Is Serialism In Music: A Complete Guide

Written by Dan Farrant
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Serialism is a compositional technique that uses a fixed series of a particular musical element as the basis of a piece. The best-known examples use a series of pitches, but pieces might also use a series of rhythms, dynamics, or other musical elements. This series – a row of notes, for instance – might then be manipulated in various ways for interest and variety.

While serialism is most commonly associated with the atonal 12-tone music of 20th-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg, it actually refers to a composition method rather than a particular style or sound.

In this article, we’ll look at exactly how serialism works, and at some classic examples of pieces that make use of it, and at the composers who wrote them.

Background to Serialism

Any music that uses some sort of set, repeating pattern can be considered to be serial, at least to some extent.

For example, isorhythmic music from the Medieval period is an early example of serialism, in that it uses repeating a rhythmic pattern that repeats many times, but with different pitches each time.

This is despite the fact that the word serialism was not invented at that point.

Serialism as we now think of the term was pioneered by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg during the 1920s.

His big innovation was twelve-tone technique.

This term is often used interchangeably with serialism, but actually twelve-tone technique is just one type of serialism.

While twelve-tone music applies serialist technique to a tone row of pitches, these techniques can also be applied to other elements of music, such as dynamics, rhythm or articulation.

Twelve-Tone Serialism

By the early 20th Century, composers had begun to reach something of a dead end with regards to tonalism – music based upon major and minor scales and traditional cadences.

The likes of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were writing pieces that were so full of chromaticism that the designated key centre had almost become meaningless.

Composers began experimenting with atonality – music that does not contain the hierarchies, cadences and tonalities found in most western music.

Following on from initial experiments with free-form atonality, Schoenberg began to work on a system to give a sense of order to this rather dissonant strand of music.

Twelve-tone serialism takes the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and places them into a fixed order.

This is our tone row, which forms the basis of the piece.

The notes should always appear in that order and, strictly speaking, no note should be repeated until the tone row has been stated in full.

This means that twelve-tone music tends to sound radically different to more traditional tonal music.

All of the twelve tones are of more or less equal importance, which is not the case in tonal music.

For example, in a piece in C major, C is clearly the most important note.

Treatment of the Tone Row in Twelve-Tone Serialism

Different rhythms may be applied to the tone row, and it may also be treated or manipulated in various ways: 

  • The prime – this is the tone row in its original form
  • The retrograde – this is when the notes of the tone row are played in reverse order
  • The inversion – when the intervals of the tone row are inverted, so a rising major second would become a descending major second
  • The retrograde inversion – when the inverted row is played backwards.

The notes of the tone row can be played in any octave, meaning that twelve-tone music often features wide interval leaps.

Schoenberg was initially very strict about following the rules, but his later work tended to use serialist techniques in a more relaxed fashion.

His two students, Anton Webern and Alban Webern, also used twelve-tone technique and, together, the three composers are referred to as the “Second Viennese School”.

Here is a Schoenberg piece for piano that uses twelve-tone technique:

Schoenberg – ‘Suite for Piano, Op. 25’

Integral Serialism

It is also possible to apply serial techniques to elements of music other than pitch.

As an extension of Schoenberg’s work, composers like Milton Babbitt and Oliver Messiaen used tone rows but also began serialising things like rhythm, dynamics and articulation.

Music that serialises multiple elements in this way is called integral serialism, or total serialism.

To serialise rhythm, for example, you might have a fixed series of note values, which you could manipulate in similar ways to a tone row.

You could do something similar with a fixed series of dynamic markings.

This way of working creates pieces that are highly ordered and, in some ways, the approach leaves much less room for the composer to exercise free choice:

“What we were doing was to annihilate the will of the composer in favour of a predetermining system” – Pierre Boulez

Boulez, a student of Messiaen, wrote Structures, a classic piece of integral serialism for two pianos, which applies serialist techniques to pitch, rhythm, dynamics and attack (the articulation of each note).

Pierre Boulez – ‘Structures I & II’

Other Types of Serialism

It is possible to apply serial techniques to a row of pitches without using strict twelve-tone technique.

For instance, you might apply the techniques listed above to a row of pitches that contains repeated notes, or which doesn’t use all of the notes of the chromatic scale.

Igor Stravinsky wrote music along these lines during the 1950s. 

His Septet contains serial elements and is inspired by Shoenberg’s music, but arguably takes a more relaxed to the process, and certainly sounds rather different:

Igor Stravinsky – ‘Septet’

Milton Babbitt’s All Set places twelve-tone serialism in the context of a jazz band.

Here it is played by an ensemble led by the jazz pianist Bill Evans:

Bill Evans and Orchestra – ‘Milton Babbitt’s All Set’

Meanwhile Karlheinz Stockhausen’s version of integral serialism made use of electronic instruments and effects:

Karlheinz Stockhausen – ‘Kontakte’

Reactions to Serial Music

Unsurprisingly, serial music has often proved rather controversial or divisive, and music by the likes of Schoenberg and Webern is not always popular with concert-goers, although of course it also has its devotees.

It sounds so different to traditional, tonal music and by its very nature is often quite dissonant or challenging. 

Because it is typically structured using strict rules, it has been accused of sounding dry and robotic.

Some composers found the technique to be something of a dead end which often led to works that sounded quite similar to each other, despite the fact that, in theory, serialism is a technique rather than a specific style or genre.

Serialism began to fall out of fashion from the 1960s onwards, but its huge impact upon some of the major composers of the 20th Century cannot be denied.


Thank you for reading our complete guide to serialism.

We hope that you have enjoyed learning a little more about this fascinating sphere of music.

We’ve covered some of the key composers of serial music and provided links to their most important pieces, as well as covering some of the different branches of serialism, such as twelve-tone music and integral serialism.

Whilst this music divides opinion, its importance is certainly indisputable.

What do you think?

Do you love or hate the pieces that we’ve looked at here?

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.