The 12-Tone Technique

Expressionist music isn't everyone's cup of tea! Its unusual sounds can make it feel abstract and sometimes even scary. Composers who worked in this style experimented with methods that give their music a sense of structure. These techniques are important to study because they would influence many musicians in the years to follow. 

Arnold Schoenberg famously invented the 12-tone technique

Think of the keyboard on a piano. A keyboard is made of a repeating pattern of 7 white keys and 5 black keys. Each key represents one of the 12 musical notes! 

When using the 12-tone method, a composer puts these 12 notes in a unique order. This is called the tone row, and it becomes a kind of melody that guides the musician as they write their composition. 

Composers have a lot of fun experimenting with tone rows; in their compositions, they'll use the tone row many times, making it appear forwards, backwards, and even flipped upside down! 

Schoenberg's Piano Concerto

Arnold Schoenberg wrote a famous Piano Concerto (pronounced con-sher-toe) that's based on a tone row. 

A concerto is a type of music written for a solo musician (like a pianist) and orchestra. It's an exciting opportunity for the soloist to show off their technical skills! 
For this piece's tone row, Schoenberg placed the twelve notes in this unique order: 
Here's what that sounds like on the piano: 

You'll hear this tone row introduced at the very beginning of the piano concerto, but it's "jazzed up" a bit to sound like this: 

Throughout this long, challenging composition, Schoenberg sneaks in his tone row backwards, upside down, and every which way! It provides some structure to music that might feel otherwise unorganized.

While the music sounds a bit unusual, it expresses beautiful and powerful emotions! You can tell which feelings Schoenberg hoped to express by paying attention to the descriptions he gave to each of the piece's four sections:

  1. “Life was so easy"
  2. “Suddenly hatred broke out”
  3. “A grave situation was created"
  4. “But life goes on"

Watch a sample of the concerto, played by a very famous pianist, here: 

If you're brave enough to listen to all four sections, use this playlist! 


 Ready to write your OWN tone row?

Follow the instructions in your magazine. You can play your composition on a digital keyboard here

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