Atonality: Schoenberg, Miles, and the Beastie Boys


You've probably spent plenty of time in your musical education learning scales, modes, clefs, and keys, but have you ever looked at the impact and art of throwing out the tonal center? Atonality is probably most recognized (initially, at least) in the music of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who developed a number of compositional styles in which he worked away from categorization on the basis of tone. Schoenberg, though, despised even the categorization of "atonality," describing in his Theory of Harmony that, "the word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis." Little did he know that these compositions would go on on to influence countless generations and styles of music including jazz and hip-hop.

Check out the lineage of atonal aesthetics from Schoenberg to Miles Davis to the Beastie Boys and beyond.

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Schoenberg's Das Buch der Hängende Gärten, Op. 15 (1908)

Composed around 1908 during what is considered to be Schoenberg's most prolific period of composition for atonal music, "The Book of the Hanging Gardens," as it is translated, is one of the defining compositions of atonal music. Some argue that the image of these Baroque geometric gardens are a metaphor for Schoenberg breaking free from the traditional confines of music. Take a listen to how the music conveys feeling without the same structure as most music you have heard.

Miles Davis' "Great Expectations" (1974)

Miles Davis got into atonality far after some of the other renowned jazz artists like Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. Reggie Lucas who was in Miles' band at the time explains, "It was funny because it came out at the same time that he was really funky. While he had this R&B band with a bunch of guitars and funky bass and drums going, he was beginning to explore these harmonic and melodic textures that you would associate with avant-garde jazz or twentieth-century classical music." The records that Miles was making at the time (On the Corner, Big Fun) were the cornerstones of development for later trance, hip-hop, and funk work, so it seems natural that some of these atonal influences would carry through.

The Beastie Boys "Shadrach" (1989)

Atonality in hip-hop was more a byproduct of sampling than any particular theory-based choice — many of the early innovators of hip-hop were not necessarily even versed in any sort of music theory. Instead, they relied on their own ears and the reactions of the crowd. With so many different samples being put together in one piece of music though, no distinct tonal center became an inevitability. The Beastie Boys became known for their ability to fit any number of samples within a song. Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson explains that as a young artist in Philly listening to Paul's Boutique for the first time, he found it to be almost a game, figuring out what samples he heard. Take a listen for yourself and see which very different samples you can find inside.

*There are so many other examples of atonality in popular music today. Where do you hear the influence of Schoenberg?