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14/2: Is Tonality Finished?

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Is Tonality Finished?

Dissonance has its place as a medium of tone-color and polytonality has important uses as a means of expression, but for their own sake, they are completely abhorrent to me. –Ottorino Respighi


By the late nineteenth century, composers like Strauss, Mahler and others were able to travel in every imaginable direction within the traditional major-minor system. There seemed to be no new continents to discover. Some composers like Debussy, Faure, Vaughan Williams and others explored modal music, which offered a chance to bring an out-of-tune version of ethnic music into the Western harmonic tradition. Arnold Schönberg left the tonal world behind entirely, abandoning the concept of a tonal center with his atonal or “free-tonal” (eventually, dodecaphonic) style, and declared “the emancipation of the dissonance.”

Schönberg did not, however, question the 12-eq tuning system he was born into. As I have mentioned before, he was exposed to 53-eq tunings but never explored its possibilities. We have already seen how the 12-eq tuning can evoke the perfect fifth rather well, and with careful construction of musical context can just barely evoke the just major and minor thirds (14% out of tune). The seventh harmonic, which is 39% off in 12-eq, is almost impossible to evoke. Blues and jazz vocalists sing the septimal seventh all the time, but the instruments backing them up are stuck in something pretty close to the 12-eq mode. So while the septimal seventh can and does influence the pitches of singers, it has no real place in traditional harmony. You simply can’t create septimal chord progressions in 12-eq, and to my knowledge no one has tried.

So, how has 12-eq fared in the 20th century since leading composers abandoned major-minor tonality? The atonalists may have emancipated their music from dissonance, but very few audience members outside of academia have embraced them, and five generations later, Schönberg’s music is still regarded by most listeners as the cod liver oil of music.

Bartok and others have built theoretical systems around stacks of perfect fourths and other non-triadic intervals, creating entirely new tonal languages that many audience members find challenging and stimulating.

Modal composers have certainly expanded the major-minor system, often to great effect. But the modes are only roughly approximated in 12-eq, and don’t have nearly the expressive power as they do in their original just tunings.

Tonal composers like Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and others have proven that there is still much room for inspiration and originality in the old major-minor paradigm. In fact, almost all of pop music sticks with tonality and there is no lack of creativity in that world either.

However, for tonal composers it’s a different world altogether than the one inhabited by Haydn and Mozart. As tonality was coming into full bloom in the 18th century, entire musical continents lay unexplored and waiting for them to discover. Like the Earth itself, explorers had plenty of new places to visit for the first time. Now, there are topographical maps for every square mile of the planet, and there are theoretical maps for every possible chord progression within the 12-eq Major-Minor system. The 12-eq system has allowed for an incredibly thorough exploration of third and fifth-harmonic tonal relationships, and many composers feel that there are no new tonal possibilities left. There is nothing new under the 12-eq sun, only composers coming up with new melodies, orchestrations, and mergings of diverse musical styles. From a purely theoretical point of view, the third and fifth harmonics are worn out!

In 53-eq, the seventh harmonic is only 4.5 cents off from pure just tuning, and is therefore easily evoked. And here is where a whole new gateway has been opened to expand the tonal language even within the Major-Minor system. Many ancient cultures from the ancient Greeks and Chinese to the Byzantine and Roman Churches eschewed the seventh harmonic, even when pure just tuning was the norm. In some cultures, the seventh harmonic was avoided because it was considered by some a dangerous gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Indian, Arabian and Turkish and later-Greek theorists sometimes allowed the seventh harmonic into their theoretical systems, and as a result there are a handful of scales out there which use the septimal seventh or septimal minor third.

If you would like to learn more about this chapter, “Is Tonality Finished?” and ideas of how a New Tonality can be developed with 53-equal tuning, you can buy the entire book, The Grand Unified Theory of Music, in pdf form for $25 with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world.

A free introduction to what The Grand Unified Theory of Music offers is on this website and includes both text and a few musical examples from each webpage. If you would like to learn more about this chapter and the full contents of this entire e-book, you can buy The Grand Unified Theory of Music for $25, with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world — and ideas for how to set up your computer system —


You’ll get a personalized password you can use to see the entire e-book. Inside the full book, you will also get a link to the complete pdf file of this e-book, which you can read on your Kindle or similar device. The links to the hundreds of mp3 sound files – the same ones you can hear on the website — will also be included. This is “Version 1.0” of The Grand Unified Theory of Music. Because it is an e-book, additions, corrections and improvements in the sound may be added at any time. The Grand Unified Theory of Music is Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Mohr. All rights reserved.

One person per password. Sharing this password with others is a violation of copyright. Do not allow others to use your password or link to the pdf file!

Next Page: 14/3 – Septimal Intervals