What Weakened the Traditional Role of Tonality in Music?

What Weakened the Traditional Role of Tonality in Music?

In music, tonality is the system of notes and chords that creates a sense of resolution. It is what gives a song its key, or overall tonal center. This system has been in place for centuries, but it has begun to break down in recent years. So what has weakened the traditional role of tonality in music?

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Since the beginning of the 20th century, music has seen a number of changes in both composition and performance. While tonality—the system of major and minor keys that had been used for centuries—remained an important part of music, its role began to weaken as new compositional styles emerged. In this paper, we will explore some of the factors that contributed to this change.

Theoretical underpinnings

There are a number of theoretical underpinnings that have contributed to the weakening of tonality in music. One of the most influential has been the concept of “dissonance” developed by German composer Arnold Schoenberg. According to this theory, it is the tension created by dissonance that gives music its expressive power. This led to a preoccupation with atonal and 12-tone composition in the 20th century, which further weakened the role of tonality in music.

Historical context

It is generally accepted that the tonal system as we know it began to emerge in the late Renaissance period, with composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Orlando di Lasso writing pieces in which certain notes were clearly delineated as being more important than others. This process continued through the Baroque era, during which time major and minor keys were established and composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel wrote some of their most famous works within this framework.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century, tonality was beginning to be challenged by a number of different forces. The first was the increased popularity of atonality, or music that did not conform to any particular key. This style was championed by composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who often poked fun at the rules of tonality in his works. Another factor was the rise of Romanticism, which led to a greater focus on emotion and expression in music, rather than on traditional harmonic principles. Finally, the growing influence of folk music from around Europe led to a greater incorporation of unusual scales and modes into classical compositions.

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All of these factors contributed to a gradual weakening of the role of tonality in music over the course of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, many composers were experimenting with atonality and other forms of non-tonal music, and tonality became less prevalent in both classical and popular music. While it has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, tonality remains a relatively marginalized force in music today.

The rise of chromaticism

One of the most important developments in Western music was the rise of chromaticism-the use of all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in contrast to the more limited diatonic scale (seven notes in a major or minor scale). This development began in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods and continued throughout the Common Practice period. Chromaticism had a number of important consequences for tonality.

First, it increased harmonic possibilities and made more complex harmonic progressions possible. Second, it made modulations-the changes of key within a composition-much easier to accomplish. Third, it created new challenges for composers in terms of maintaining a clear tonal center, or key, throughout a composition.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, chromaticism called into question the traditional role of tonality as the organizing principle of Western music. Although tonality remained an important musical language throughout the Common Practice period, its role was increasingly challenged by chromaticism. This challenge came to a head in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of atonality and serialism-two musical languages that rejected tonality altogether.

The influence of non-Western music

One of the most significant factors that weakened the role of tonality in music was the influence of non-Western music. With the globalization of society, people were exposed to a wider range of musical styles, and this had a profound impact on the way that Western music was composed. composers began to experiment with combining different musical elements from various cultures, and this led to a more diverse range of sounds and harmonies. This, in turn, made it more difficult for listeners to identify a specific key or tonality in a piece of music.

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The impact of technology

The traditional role of tonality in music has been weaken by the impact of technology. With the advent of digital music and the ability to produce perfect replicas of sounds, composers and producers have been able to create music that is divorced from the restrictions of traditional tonality. This has led to a greater freedom in composition, as well as a more varied and diverse range of music styles.

The role of tonality in contemporary music

Since the early 20th century, Western music has increasingly explored atonality, or the lack of a central tonal center. This trend was initially met with resistance from audiences and critics, who were used to the traditional tonal system of major and minor keys. However, as composers continued to experiment with atonality, it gradually became more accepted, to the point where it is now a staple of contemporary music. There are a number of factors that contributed to this shift in musical style.

One reason for the increasing popularity of atonal music is that it allows for greater freedom in composition. In tonal music, composers are constrained by the need to maintain a central tonal center; in atonal music, there is no such requirement. This freedom allows composers to explore a wider range of harmonic possibilities, resulting in more interesting and complex music.

Another factor that contributed to the weakening of tonality is the influence of non-Western musical traditions. Western musicians began to incorporate elements of non-Western music into their own compositions, resulting in a more diverse range of musical styles. This increased exposure to different musical traditions helped to erode the dominance of tonality in Western music.

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Lastly, the development of new musical technologies also played a role in weakening the traditional role of tonality. With the advent of electronic instruments and recording techniques, composers had more tools available to them for creating atonal music. This made it easier for composers to experiment with atonality and helped to popularize this style of composition.


As we have seen, there are a number of factors that have weakened the traditional role of tonality in music. These include the increased use of atonal and chromatic composition, the influence of popular music, and the decline of tonal centers in classical music. While there is no single factor that can be said to have caused the decline of tonality, it is clear that the traditional role of tonality has been greatly reduced in recent years.


-Arthur Berger, “Tonal Coherence in Atonal Music,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. XLIX, No. 3 (July 1963), pp. 326-340.
-Charles Cave, “Atonal and Tonal Patterns in Extended Works by Bartok and Stravinsky,” Music Analysis, Vol. I, No. 1 (March 1982), pp. 7-30.
-Larry Solomon, “Tonal Implications of Set Structure,” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. XVI, No. 2 (Winter 1978), pp. 167-186.
-Carl Dahlhaus, “Tonal Functions in Atonal Music? A Programmatic Survey,” Musical Quarterly, Vol. LXVII, No. 3 (July 1981), pp 371-393

Further reading

-Heilbut, Anthony. “Exoticism and the Fall of Tonality.” The New York Times, 11 Dec. 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/arts/music/exoticism-and-the-fall-of-tonality-in-music.html?_r=0.

-“What Weakened the Traditional Role of Tonality in Music?” thoughtco.com, https://www.thoughtco.com/what-weakened-the-traditional-role-of-tonality-2458445.

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