Is it possible to enjoy listening to twelve-tone music

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composers were exploring the bounds of tonality. Many began venturing into the realm of atonality. Although a number of systems were developed, the twelve-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg became the most successful.

     Schoenberg was Viennese and grew up under the influence of the Viennese tradition. The two most important musical influences in his life were Brahms and Wagner. And although he didn’t receive strong or systematic formal musical training, he began composing as a young man. His early works, which included some string quartets and piano music, were very much in the German romantic style. Early in the twentieth century, though, he began turning toward a more angular style and eventually developed his twelve-tone system.

     Schoenberg’s early career was interrupted by World War I, during which he served in the Austrian army. After the war, he resumed his activities, teaching at the Berlin State Academy of the Arts. In 1933, when the Nazi party assumed control, Schoenberg, being Jewish, was dismissed. He emigrated to France and then to the United States, eventually becoming a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. 

    During his Vienna years, Shoenberg worked with two students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both became recognized composers. Berg’s opera Wozzeck demonstrates many of the techniques he adopted from Schoenberg, including Sprechstimme. Berg’s music, though, is more approachable than his teacher’s.

    Anton Webern focused on miniature works. His entire output is contained in less than five hours of music. Although his music was influential in the 1970s and 1980s, Webern didn’t receive much recognition during his lifetime.


1. Twelve-tone music is just one form of serialism. Other elements of a musical composition can also be serialized or turned into numbers. Some of Schoenberg’s contemporaries, notably Stravinsky, and younger composers such as Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez explored serial techniques during the 1950s and 1960s.

2. Sprechstimme is a very abstract vocal approach. Inexperienced listeners will most likely focus attention on the odd vocal quality and angularity of the melody. It is difficult to develop an approach to listening that encourages attentive listening. I have found it helpful to provide very brief examples of the style first and solicit reactions from students. Then ask them why a skilled composer, one who could write very beautiful melodies, would choose to write in this style.

3. Berg and Webern expanded the possibilities of twelve-tone technique. Berg was able to create very memorable melody that was easier to perceive than Schoenberg’s. His opera Wozzeck is a masterful work. You should spend some time with it in class if possible. 


1. Is it possible to enjoy listening to twelve-tone music? How should a listener approach this style? How can a listener make sense out of this music?

2. Keep in mid the composer’s intention. Is this music intended to entertain? If not, what is its purpose?

Reference no: EM13541199

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