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What are the 12-tone scale?

The 12-tone scale, also known as dodecaphonic or twelve-tone technique, is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. It is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while avoiding the emphasis on any one note through the use of key signatures, major or minor scales, and triads. This method guarantees that all 12 notes are equal, and no one note dominates over others.

What is a 12-tone row?

The foundation of the 12-tone technique is the tone row, an ordered series of all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This row serves as the basis for a composition’s melody and harmony. It is a specific ordering of the 12 pitches, e.g., C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B. The row may be used in its original (prime) form or in one of its 11 possible transformations (retrograde, inversion, retrograde-inversion).

For example, if the prime row is: C, C♯, D, E♭, E, F, F♯, G, A♭, A, B♭, B

The retrograde is: B, B♭, A, A♭, G, F♯, F, E, E♭, D, C♯, C

The inversion is: C, B, B♭, A, A♭, G, F♯, F, E, E♭, D, C♯

And the retrograde inversion is: B♭, B, A, A♭, G, F, E, E♭, D, C♯, C, C♯

Why was the 12-tone technique developed?

Arnold Schoenberg developed the 12-tone technique as a way to emancipate dissonance from the traditional rules of Western harmony. Previously, dissonant notes were required to resolve to consonant notes. Schoenberg aimed to establish all notes as equal in emphasis and function.

Schoenberg also wanted to prevent music from being in a particular key. He believed the constant affirmation of a tonic triad in functional harmony had led to overuse of conventional tonal relationships. The 12-tone technique avoids tonality altogether while still providing coherence and unity in a composition.

Additionally, Schoenberg developed the technique to ensure music would continue to progress into the future. He believed the existing system of keys and harmonic progression had been exhausted and that new systems were needed to expand the possibilities open to composers.

How does 12-tone composition work?

There are a few core rules and procedures a composer follows when writing a 12-tone composition:

  • The composer establishes a tone row consisting of all 12 chromatic tones in any chosen order.
  • The tone row is the foundation of the music. It is repeated, reversed, inverted, and transformed through techniques such as retrograde and inversion.
  • The tone row is not normally heard in succession from beginning to end. It is broken up into fragments and combined.
  • No one note is emphasized more than others. All 12 tones are treated equally.
  • Notes are not repeated until all 12 tones have sounded.
  • Rhythm, dynamics, and other aspects of music are freely composed as desired.

While adhering to these rules, composers have much freedom and flexibility in how they work with the row and build the structure of a 12-tone composition. The tone row is a guide and resource, not a rigid mold.

What are some key 12-tone techniques?

Some key techniques used in 12-tone music composition include:

  • Prime row – The original ordering of the 12 tones.
  • Retrograde – The prime row reversed.
  • Inversion – The prime row with ascending intervals changed to descending and vice versa.
  • Retrograde inversion – The retrograde form of the inversion.
  • Transposition – Shifting the row to start on a different pitch.
  • Combination – Playing the row or parts of it simultaneously in different voices.
  • Fragmentation – Breaking the row into smaller subsets or motifs.
  • Aggregates – Chords containing all 12 tones spread over multiple octaves.

Using these techniques, composers are able to take a simple tone row and develop extensive variation throughout a composition while adhering to 12-tone principles.

Who composed using the 12-tone technique?

Arnold Schoenberg was the primary pioneer of the technique, developing it in the early 1920s in works like the Five Piano Pieces and Serenade. Some other prominent composers who used 12-tone technique include:

  • Alban Berg – Violin Concerto, Lyric Suite
  • Anton Webern – Variations for Piano, String Quartet
  • Pierre Boulez – Le Marteau sans maître
  • Luigi Dallapiccola – Il Prigionero
  • Milton Babbitt – Three Compositions for Piano
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen – Kreuzspiel

Many significant 20th century composers experimented with 12-tone and serialist techniques in some portion of their music, often combining it with other styles and approaches.

What are the advantages of the 12-tone technique?

Some key advantages and strengths of composing with the 12-tone technique include:

  • Provides a systematic and controlled way to organize all 12 chromatic tones.
  • Eliminates emphasis on any one pitch or key center.
  • Enables greater dissonance and harmonic freedom.
  • Creates unity and coherence through the tone row.
  • Generates complex, fresh, and inventive musical lines and patterns.
  • Allows for extensive development and variation within a consistent structure.

What are the criticisms of 12-tone music?

Some common criticisms of 12-tone music include:

  • It can sound overly intellectual, dry, or lacking in passion and emotion.
  • The rigorous rules constrain creativity and spontaneity.
  • It abandons traditional tonality and often lacks melodic lyricism.
  • The harmony can be perceived as random, detached, or lacking direction.
  • It is difficult for listeners to comprehend without analysis and repeated listening.
  • Performers may struggle with intonation in highly chromatic lines.

However, many composers have found great inspiration and meaning in working with the 12-tone method. They aim to use the technical rigor to creative and expressive ends in their music.

How did 12-tone music evolve and influence later composers?

The 12-tone technique continued to evolve in the mid 20th century through composers finding new ways to apply and transform it, including:

  • Using larger tone rows with more than 12 notes.
  • Applying rows to elements other than pitch, like rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc.
  • Developing serialized music where tone rows govern multiple musical aspects.
  • Combining 12-tone principles with improvisation and aleatory music.
  • Integrating 12-tone ideas with electronic music and spatialization.

Many innovative works in the 1950s-70s by composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt, and others expanded concepts from 12-tone music. Contemporary composers continue to be influenced by the ideas and theoretical underpinnings developed by Schoenberg and his students.


While controversial and challenging when it emerged, Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique remains an enormously influential development in 20th century music. The 12-tone system has provided composers with new ways of working with dissonance, tonality, and musical logic. It led to entirely new sounds and structural possibilities. Composers today may not strictly adhere to its rules, but the concepts and spirit of 12-tone music continue to shape contemporary musical thought and composition.