What is Twelve-Tone Technique in Music: A Complete Guide

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Twelve-tone technique is a method of musical composition, where all of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are used in a fixed order, which is then used in various systematic ways, with all of the notes generally given more-or-less equal importance. This is in stark contrast to the rules and conventions or major and minor tonality which govern most of western music.

In this article, we will take a closer look at how twelve-tone music works. We’ll learn about tone rows and how they can be manipulated, and some of the key composers who helped pioneer this method of writing music. Along the way, we’ll also listen to some classic examples of pieces that utilize this highly distinctive style of composition.

Background: the Second Viennese School and the Development of Twelve-tone Music

By the beginning of the 20th Century, there was a feeling that western classical music had reached something of a dead-end, and that there was little room to move forwards whilst still following the conventions of tonal music (the system of major and minor key tonality and harmonic rules that govern the majority of western music).

In response to this, some composers began to experiment with completely free atonality – music that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of harmony at all – before looking to seeking a more systematic, structured approach to atonalism.

The first person to write about a kind of twelve-tone approach to music was an Austrian composer called Josef Matthias Hauer.

However, it is Arnold Schoenberg (also from Austria) who is best known for pioneering the form of twelve-tone serialism that caught on and influenced a number of prominent composers of the mid-20th Century.

Starting in the early 1920s, Schoenberg and his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg wrote atonal twelve-tone music based upon tone rows.

A tone row places all twelve notes of the chromatic scale into a fixed order, with each note being used once before any notes are repeated.

This tone row can then be manipulated in various ways.

In traditional tonal music some notes within a key centre are more important or prominent than others.

For example, in a piece in C major the tonic (C) and the dominant (G) are amongst the most important notes.

In atonal twelve-tone music, however, there is no key centre or tonality, and every one of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale is given more or less equal importance.

For this reason twelve-tone music sounds very different to the music that most of us are used to hearing, and it can sound quite challenging and dissonant.

Collectively, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern are known as the Second Viennese School (whereas the First Viennese School refers to the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven who were centred around Vienna in the late 18th Century).

Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Opus 25 is a classic example of twelve-tone music:

Schoenberg – ‘Suite for Piano, Opus 25’

Twelve-Tone Technique vs Serialism: The Differences

You may have heard the word serialism used to mean twelve-tone music.

The two terms are often used interchangeably but, in fact, twelve-tone technique is just one type – and the best-known example – of serialism.

Serialism refers to a piece that uses a fixed, repeating series of a particular musical element as the basis of a piece.

Twelve-tone music applies that approach to pitch via a tone row of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, but one could also apply that same approach to another element of music, such as rhythm, dynamics, or articulation.

Composers like Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt built upon Schoenberg’s ideas by applying serialist ideas to other musical elements, as well as to pitch.

This is known as integral serialism or total serialism.

Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations is an example of this, in that it uses twelve-tone technique, but also applies serialist technique to rhythm:

Milton Babbitt – ‘Semi-Simple Variations’

Tone Rows and How Twelve-Tone Serialism Works

Twelve-tone music uses a tone row, which forms the basis of the piece.

Let’s take a look at exactly what a tone row is, and at the various ways that it can be transformed:

Prime

Prime is the name we use to refer to the tone row in its original form.

It is a fixed series of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a given order.

For example:

This makes use of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.

They can be in any order but, usually, there must be no repetition until every note has been used.

When the tone row is used within the composition the notes can be used in any octave, so we often hear wide intervallic leaps in twelve-tone music.

This contributes to its distinctive, often dissonant sound.

The tones can usually be played in any rhythm and with any dynamics, so although the composer has a predetermined selection of notes to use, he or she will have free reign with regards to other elements of the composition.

Retrograde

Retrograde is the name we give to the tone row when it’s played in reverse order, from back to front.

The fact that this is possible contributes to the idea of twelve-tone music being quite a mathematical, ordered and logical music.

Of course, if you were to play a melody backwards with most traditional tonal music it would probably sound quite strange!

Notice how this is the same notes as in our prime row, but read from back to front.

Inversion

Another variation to the tone row is inversion which is where all of the intervals in our tone row are now inverted.

So while our first interval in the prime row sounded as a rising major third, we now start with a falling major third.

Retrograde Inversion

And lastly, retrograde inversion is the name we use when we invert and reverse the tone row.

Why don’t you try coming up with your own tone row, and then work out how the retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversions of it will sound?

There are various online tools that you can use to help you with this, such as this tone row matrix generator.

Other Uses of Twelve-tone Technique

While the twelve-tone music by Schoenberg and his cohorts was initially quite strict with regards to serialism’s “rules”, they later began to compose with a more loose approach to the technique.

Sometimes there might be more than one tone row occurring at once, while at other times they might break away from it completely and write in a more free-form way.

They might also incorporate more traditional tonal sounds alongside a twelve-tone approach.

Whilst people most commonly associate twelve-tone technique with the 20th Century classical music of the Second Viennese School and its direct descendants, it has also been used in other contexts.

The composer Scott Bradley used twelve-tone serialism to comic effect in this episode of the classic cartoon Tom and Jerry.

You can hear the twelve-tone technique used around 1:40 when the dog walks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHrwaZPVc_U
Scott Bradley – ‘Tom and Jerry’

The jazz pianist Bill Evans wrote a piece called “T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune),” which has a melody that comes from a typical twelve-tone row.

However, this is then harmonized with a relatively functional underlying chord progression, so the overall effect is much less dissonant than in a piece of wholly twelve-tone music by Schoenberg or Webern, for example.

Still, it is an interesting and unusual way of coming up with a melody line:

Bill Evans – ‘T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune)’

Summary

So, that brings us to the end of our guide to twelve-tone technique.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this unique way of writing music.

We’ve looked at some of the pioneers of twelve-tone composition and serialism, and listened to some classic examples of the genre.

We’ve also looked at examples of tone rows and at how you can manipulate them in various ways, as well as seeing some more surprising examples of music that approach the compositional process in this way.

Thanks for reading!

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping 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. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.