Serialism (12-tone composition) was Arnold Schoenberg’s attempt to unfetter classical music from the bonds of chord progressions. It could only have arisen, one imagines, in an era when the unfettering was already well under way, when the harmonic bonds that remained were less like handcuffs than like well-cooked spaghetti.
Though many composers dabbled with serial techniques, ultimately serialism was a failure. The music from the 20th century that has gained a lasting place in the concert repertoire — for instance, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or Barber’s Adagio for Strings — is not serialist.
It’s a pity Schoenberg didn’t have access to instruments that could play microtonal scales. He could have entirely burst the bonds of conventional harmony without needing to resort to cold mathematical processes. I’ve read (can’t remember where, but it may have been in a letter Wendy Carlos wrote to the New York Times) that a statistical analysis of serial works reveals a strong preference for Read more