From the 17th to the 19th Century and still widely today, Western music has adopted a convention whereby each piece of music has a key (a tonal centre), harmonies are constructed systematically, usually in thirds, and melodies are formed from a variety of well-recognised scales (major, minor and so on). Music that is not composed this way, in other words it is atonal, is still a tough listen for anyone who is not seriously into free jazz and late 19th and 20th Century classical music (Schoenberg, Webern, etc).
My interest in atonal music has been sparked by my participation in Composing Music Workshop Online. In this course, I set myself the challenge to develop a series of pieces for the string quartet. The first was traditional, almost baroque in nature and the second very much in the romantic classical tradition. While these have worked out well, at least for me, my tutor, Gareth Churchill, has inspired me to think more radically about composition.
Here is an example of one of the atonal pieces that Gareth encouraged me to study:
When everything you have ever attempted as a composer was tonal, you cannot overnight adopt the radical change in thinking required to write like Webern (leaving aside his technical mastery). So, I made baby steps. My final piece for the course, called A Meeting of Minds (between the traditional and the avant-garde), is not grounded in a particular key, uses unconventional scales (in this case whole tone) and, in places, some unusual harmonising in fourths (quartals). However, I would not call it atonal because it still has many traditional structures, including some recognisable tunes!
If you have a few minutes to spare, why not give it a listen?