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Serialist Guitar Techniques

When we’re talking about atonality in music , we’re usually referring to a system in which there is no hierarchy of pitches revolving around a central tone or tonic. This approach differs significantly from the tonal system, in which a central tone always exists. In fact, it differs so much because atonality began as an attempt to express music in a different way- by consciously avoiding traditional diatonic harmony. Dissonance had already been explored by composers such as Scriabin and Debussy , who used it as a tool to expand the possibilities of the tonal system, but even extreme dissonances still required a tonal center in order to work.

History of Atonality

At the end of the 19 th  century and the beginning of the 20 th  century, many composers (most notably Arnold Schoenberg ) argued that the traditional tonal system used for composing music until then had been explored to its limits and believed that new composers should look for new ways to express music. This meant that the very concept of tonality should be removed; tones now were given equal value instead of revolving around a tonal center. However, by removing tonality, which until then was the main organizing principle of western music, composers now needed to find a way to structure and organize music.


After some time of exploring free atonality, Schoenberg and fellow atonal composers (which later came to be known as the second Viennese school) started to arrange tones in rows. Also known as twelve-tone serialism , this technique makes sure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are treated equally, without emphasizing one note over other.

Later, composers like Messiaen and Boulez started to apply the concept of serialization to other parameters of music besides notes, such as rhythm, dynamics, and timbre. Nowadays, the term ‘atonal’ is somewhat vague in meaning since it can be used to describe any approach to music that avoids using traditional structures such as chords, diatonic scales, and chord progressions- you can find atonality on genres like free jazz, metal, rock, and electronic music.

Now, while the idea of playing atonal music sounds simple at first, it’s a little bit harder to properly implement in practice; it's not easy to create phrasings that make sense musically without referencing any tonality and not sounding 'random'. While rhythm is key for that matter, the serialization approach allows you to create 100% atonal phrasings, since you won’t repeat any notes of the chromatic scale thus accidentally referencing a certain tonality. It must be specified that serialization is not the only approach to atonality, but it’s a great one to learn it because it’s applied in a very mathematical and organized way.


The serialist technique we’ll be reviewing in this lesson is called derived rows . The concept is actually quite simple; after choosing a series of tones, also known as a tone row , you can rearrange that row in different patterns. Serialist rows use all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale without repeating any tone until the row is completed.

There are three ways in which a row can be re-organized: inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Here is our original melody.As you can see in the diagram, no pitch is repeated until the row is finished, each note occurs only once. If a note happened to appear twice on the row, it would reference a certain tonality, disrupting the serialization-not what we’re looking for.

Original Row

atonality in music - Serialism - original row


Inverted Row

atonality in music - Serialism - inverted row

Inverting a row means that every interval in a melody is kept the same, but the direction is changed. So, if our melody starts with an ascending major third followed by a descending minor second, the inverted row would start with a descending major third followed by an ascending minor second.


Retrograde Row

In a retrograde row, you must simply reverse the order of the notes, as if you were reading music from right to left.

atonality in music - Serialism - retrograde row


Retrograde Inverted Row

To create a retrograde inversion , you must apply both of the previous transformations to the set. The only of notes is reversed as well as whether intervals are ascending or descending.

atonality in music - Serialism - row retrograde inversion


Learning these serialist guitar techniques will definitely help you improve your atonal phrasing , and will also help you think of music composition in a different way. For example, one way to use this outside the atonal realm is to apply techniques such as inversions and retrograde inversions to modal melodies too, in order to make several variations of a melody. They’re also a great exercise to practice chromatic scales. Hope you found this lesson useful!


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@fl3k   2 years ago
Thanks for posting Paul. It makes feel somehow uncomfortable but, at the same time, I feel curious about it. I'll have food for thought for sometime with this one ;-)