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Serialism/Twelve-Tone Technique By Whittall, Arnold

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM41-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 14 July 2024, from


Serialism or the twelve-tone technique is a way of composing music that involves replacing major and minor scales with a fixed ordering of the pitches in the chromatic scale. This generates a structure that, in principle, remains in place throughout the composition in question.

Prior to the modernist age, the idea that a musical composition should establish a fixed order of pitches, intervals, rhythmic values, and dynamic values would have seemed intolerably restrictive and mechanical. The additional requirement that a composition must maintain specific serial ordering throughout, either through literal repetition or by using any of the possible transpositions of the chosen series (thereby changing the pitch sequence while retaining the interval sequence) would have reinforced such negative conclusions and connotations. In earlier music, such fixed ordering applied only when motifs or themes were stated and literally repeated. Earlier music generally featured an interest more in the transformation and development of multiple, contrasting themes than in the reiteration of a single musical idea. Music preceding modernism made use of a major/minor key system based on a ‘‘common practice’’ of harmonic identities and functions. While distinct from a composition’s thematic material, this gave composers a comprehensive set of musical procedures from which to create coherent thematic processes.

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Citing this article:

Whittall, Arnold. Serialism/Twelve-Tone Technique. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis,

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