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Serialism as a Technique of Composing Pieces of Music Essay


In music, there are many techniques of composing pieces of music. One of such techniques is serialism that applies the concept of sets to illustrate musical elements. In addition, serialism allows the manipulation of the aforementioned sets to create new musical elements. Many people who believe in serialism think that its construction lies in the twelve-tone technique.

This technique entails the use of 12 notes of the chromatic scale to create a row, that is, a predetermined progression of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is the fundamental basis for composing a serial music characterized by structural progressions, variations, tune and harmony.

Unlike other techniques of music, serialism is synonymous; otherwise, it will appear completely different from the twelve-tone technique. For instance, if composers decide to apply serialism differently, the musical; parameters such as dynamics, timbre, pitches, and duration may form a different set that is less or more than the required twelve elements. The paper examines the meaning of serialism in music with reference to the classical writings of early music composers such as Adorno and Dahlhaus (Griffiths, 2001, 117-122).


The founding father of twelve-tone technique was Igor Stravinsky. This composer set out the pace for development of serial compositions by young composers.

Driven by the desire to combine the rhythmic innovations of Igor Stravinsky, two young composers, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen went ahead and composed the first serial music. Their inspiration to compose a twelve-piece serial music came from the parameterization of music sets from their music teacher, Oliver Messiaen. They harbored to expand the Webern compositional style and include all elements of music into one series.

For example, as a substitute of to the existing rows of tones that encompasses dynamics and attack, the two young composers proposed a method of serializing every feature. This was the beginning of serialism. However, many traditional composers did not recognize “serialism” in their music. It took quite long time for later theorists and composers to recognize the works of the two young composers-serialism, and applying it in their musical compositions.

Characterization of Serialism

Like in arithmetic, the word “series” applies in many disciplines of music. Introduced by ancient composers, the word has much significance in the modern music era. It is imperative to note that ancient composers like Adorno, Dahlhaus, Arnold Schoenberg, Herbert Eimert, and Pierre Boulez contributed greatly to the formation of a twelve-tone music technique popularly known as serialism.

The characterization of serialism cannnot occurs minus first defining what serialism is. Serialism is a structural principle or recurring sets, rows, or pitches of music in such a manner that they represent an ordered series. In most cases, the composers of serial music manipulate these elements of music (pitches, rows and sets) in order to create a piece unity. Notably, this technique, serialism, applies to all music written and composed music (Smith-Brindle, 1966, pp. 5-17).

In most cases, the word serialism refers to music where composers use at least one element of music, excluding pitch, and treating it as a row or as a series. The main aim of doing this is to create a one-piece unity that is inclusive of all twelve tones. The characterization of serialism also entails some definitions of terms such as “Schoenbergian serialism”.

This term provides the distinction between the uses of pitch series in serial music, for instance, if there is coordination of voice-leading, harmonic events and post-Romantic qualities, and perceptible rudiments of the early 20th century music. In particular, the classical writings of Adorno and Dahlhaus and the vast criticisms from other composers helped to lay a foundational stone of developing genres of music using a twelve-tone technique.

The concept of “post-Webernian serialism” is also imperative when it comes to the characterization of serialism. This concept symbolizes the works of serial composers that attract other fundamentals of music. For instance, when constructing a serial piece using one must consider using one element, say row or series.

For instance, when constructing a row, composers can choose to either assemble the elements pre-compositionally or derive an individual thematic and motivic scheme so long as the row will exhibit intervallic and symmetrical properties as required in serialism.

Using the concept of canonical forms from mathematics, the composers must make sure that every row contains three or five canonical forms. Moreover, each row must be retrograde, inversed or retrograde-inversed. Occasionally, composers incorporate certain transformations such as M5 and M7, popularly known as perfect fourth and perfect fifth respectively in order to produce the required row (Zerzan, 1999, p. 1).

On the other hand, we have a series that is a pre-compositional material comprising of manipulated sets in order to produce an ordered musical substance. Normally, musical sets have certain properties in addition to supplementary restrictions, for example, the application of each interval only once in a series.

Thus, when performing a serial composition, a composer ought to construct classes of musical elements; dividing them into equal and potential portions, just like the steps in a chromatic scale. Later on, the composers will then serial techniques to present the original work into other forms of creative music, in what many describe as serialism. Generally, serialism involves fixing and constraining indeterminate music with an aim of producing new pieces of music characterized by sequence of units and parameters.

Serial music composers habitually assemble their pieces of music from simple secrete and atomic units. These units or “notes” as many refer to them have a fixed identity and status, which stretches from one musical end to another; in fact, even past the auspices of meticulous compositions.

To create a serial music, composers add some irrefutable and decidable parameters such as enunciation, timbre, onset time, intensity, pitch and interval to produce the desired piece. Serialism in music came into limelight following the end of the Second World War. Initially, composers focused on creating pieces of music not under serial control. However, starting from the post-war serialism, serial composers saw the importance of creating musical meanings by combining different elements and parameters of music (Forte,

History of serial music

The history of development of serial music dates back to the period immediately after the Second World War. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Theodor Adorno and Carl Dahlhaus led followers of Second Viennese School to serialize the pitches of early pieces of must and combining them using a twelve-tone technique to produce serialized music.

Since then, the serialization of dynamics, tempo and other basics of music has taken place even to the contemporary period. Arnold Schoenberg was the first person to develop the twelve-tone technique with an aim of categorizing and replicating the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale into a particular form.

This methodical technique starts with the formation of a 12 × 12 matrix of a row tone, including their components such as retrospective inversion, retrospective, inversion and mappings. The classical writings of Carl Dahlhaus illustrate how composers such as Igor Stravinsky applied the technique of rotational arrays to develop serial music, and how Milton Babbitt formed serial pieces using the technique of combinatoriality of rows.

Another technique of creating serial pieces includes the set theory that uses the concept of Group Theory from mathematics. Under the set theory, the pitch classes take the place of numbers hence giving an opportunity of exploring music, while excluding triadic or tonic purposeful harmony.

Theodor Adorno’s work on music almost brought a controversy following his tousled and paradoxical reception towards ancient music. He changed his ideas on this subject from time to time hence, contradicting his writings.

According to Adorno, indeterminate music rendered hostility to cultural music and hence the need to add vigor and vitality into pieces of music. To him, the expressions of indeterminate music symbolized barbarism and lack of atonality. Adorno never liked Vienna; a thing that reflected his constant attack of music journals published by earlier composers. His career in music started when he was at university.

At this point, he started publishing papers on opera and concert reviews. From his readings, Adorno favored the development of new music characterized by aesthetics, serialism and tonality. He also published several papers on the inconsistencies surrounding musical forms and genres and later collaborated with other composers to develop a musical presentation theory (Smith-Brindle, 1966, pp. 5-17).

Twelve-tone music

Beginning from early 20th century, music composers saw it better to search for new techniques of unifying different elements of music to provide ordered music samples. They harbored to achieve an ordered system of chords and functional tonality and form new pieces of music that exhibits expression and structural organizing values. The modal organization technique initially used by composers to develop music pieces started disappearing slowly.

Composers were now using alternate scales to develop new pieces of music that exhibited functional tonality and ordered system of chords. This technique ensured that composers never omitted certain chords or pitches paramount in the new pieces. Other composers who wanted new pieces, which exhibits atonal and pantonal elements sought to extend this technique and take it to another level (Delahoyde, (n.d.), p.1).

The Invention and Description of Serialism

The concept of serialism as a body of theory in music began in 1947. By this time, composers had debated enough and wanted to introduce serialism to solve their composition problems. Serial composers considered the Webern’s arrangement and Messiaen’s technique of parameterization as the best way to compose new music.

Using these two elements, composers started to create personal sets or series for every component of music. In addition, the composers must bear in mind the technique of incorporating musical elements such as dynamics, period of notes, the orchestration procedure and other elements. Nevertheless, we should not confuse the twelve-tone works with the twelve-tone technique.

The classical writings explain that the difference between the two is that the twelve-tone works involves imperial serialism while the other one entails total serialism. Many people believe that the Second Vienna School is the basis of serial music and hence, modern music. Before 1933, neo-classism dominated at least all pieces of music. Schoenberg entered the Vienna School and started composing and teaching serialism in music.

Later on after his death, some theorists and composers took over the responsibility and made radical extensions and revisions to the works of Schoenberg. In 1950s, a theorist and composer, Allen Forte, published vast literature on atonal harmony and functional atonality. His work illustrated how composers can use a set of notation, pitch classes and families to develop a standard serial music. This is how serialism in music started.

Serialism and High Modernism

Several theorists and composers started liking Schonberg’s pieces of music developed using a twelve-tone technique. In fact, some composers such as John Cage and Meyer-Eppler who based their composition on indeterminate and aleatoricism respectively began to compose serial pieces.

Several composers based at Darmstadt School (Center for serialism) composed pieces of music that had no recurring rows with an aim of evading thematicism. A series of numerical proportions replaced the referential and recurring rows, a characteristic of serialism.

By 1950s, the twelve-tone technique had spread all over the world. Each composer focused on the mode of joining the twelve parameters to produce an excellent serial piece. However, these composers treated the parameters of music as scaled sets where every parameter had an equal chance to appear in a composition-integral serialism

However, as from 1960, the post-war music composers embarked on a journey of composing music through serial principles and methods. They structured their pieces in small sets of proportions and produced serial pieces that avoided repetition and symmetry experienced in early compositions. This was the inception of total serialism where composers could use limited parameters of music to compose new serial pieces of music. It was an era of modernism where everything including music had to be modern.

Serialism has become of age. It was in every composer’s mind and remained relative to anybody wishing to compose pieces of music. Little by little, composers discovered the advantages of composing serialized music. Under serialism, composers have the right to employ all components emanating from different elements into a single piece of music without leaving anything out.

The only caution exercised during serial composition is to create an equidistant scale and ensure that all scales are equal in size. By organizing every element is a serial way, the composers develop their own pieces that exhibit uniformity and aesthetics (Bandur, 2001, p. 54-55).

One of the notable composers of serial music is Igor Stravinsky. After adopting the twelve-tone serial music composition technique, Stravinsky found the method so interesting.

In his early compositions, his pieces lacked the harmonic and rhythmic insinuations. He sought to add the two into his future compositions. Having learnt the twelve-tone technique and other fundamentals of serial composition such as retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion, Stravinsky welcomed the idea of combining the components of each element into a single piece of music.

Notably, Schoenberg’s music impressed Stravinsky so much, and even as he became acquainted with it, he started developing serial music using procedures developed by early serial composers such as Messiaen and Webern. Nevertheless, we cannot label every piece of composed music as serial. What matters most is the period under which the composer created such music, its exploitation and the ideological backgrounds (White & Noble, 1984, pp. 3-12).

Since the end of the Second World War, serialism ahs continued to influence innovative compositions and vast scholarly scrutiny of the orthodox masters. The twelve-tone technique has been instrumental to music composers as depicted in the classical writings of Carl Dahlhaus and Theodor Adorno. For example, the classical masters are now conversant with proficient tools such as tonality and sonata, and they can now analyze past compositions using the serial technique.

In addition, these scholars have noted that by employing the methodical tools of serialism, they can avoid the orchestral outbursts that normally occur in many music pieces. Serialism has also contributed greatly into the field of mathematics especially in analogues such as operators, group and set theories, and parametrization. On the other hand, these analogues have been imperative to the development of integral serialism as demonstrated in some electronic and synthesized music.

Nevertheless, many people believe that the works of Milton Babbitt, Three Compositions for Piano, developed in 1947 is the first total serial piece. In Europe, the first person to compose a total serial piece was Karel Goeyvaerts in his 1951 piece, Nummer 2 for 13 instruments (Cott, 1973, pp. 99-107).

Debate on Serialism

Just like any other contemporary problem, serialism has also met antagonism of its own kind. At the end, we have two factions; the opponents and the proponents. The proponents of serialism believe that the twelve-tone technique brings nicety and freshness into music.

On the other hand, the opponents of serialism criticize the compositional strategies employed in composition terming them incompatible. For example, the first composer to criticize serialism was Nicolas Ruwet when he made a comparison with linguistic structures. Henri Pousseur also supported Ruwet by saying that the comparison of phoneme and single note in the analysis of serialism registers unprecedented inaccuracies.

On the other hand, the proponents of serialism find serious faults in the analysis of the opponents terming them non-considerate in looking for other possibilities of attaining musical lucidity instead; they focus on the audibility of the constructed tone rows. Nevertheless, the two groups agree that they should do some modifications to their composition techniques aimed at achieving coherence in music. The root cause of the debate on serialism has been the compositional strategy, which opponents find hard to address.

Nevertheless, debates have always existed even during the construction of serialism. In fact, debate led to the constitution of serialism enjoyed by many contemporary composers and theorists. In conventional English, the term “serial” describes all 12-tone music, that is, a compartment of the original serial music.

Most serial composers are aware of this and that always follow the technique to dot when composing their pieces. However, the opponents of serialism have composed their own serial music devoid of note-rows leave alone the fundamental basis of serialism, twelve-tone technique (Grant, 2001, pp. 210-227).

Theory of serial music

The classical writings of Carl Dahlhaus and Theodor Adorno have tried to explain the origin, development and composition of serial music in lengthy. Nevertheless, it is not lost to many classical masters that the composition of serial music occurs by the set theory, and that the composers manipulate the quasi-mathematical language of the fundamental elements to compose a serial piece.

The musical set theory developed by Schonberg, Adorno, Dahlhaus and other composers is imperative in analyzing and composing serial pieces. On the other hand, this theory has been instrumental in the study and analysis of both atonal and tonal music.

From the classical writings of the 20th century, the origin of serialism was the twelve-tone technique used by Schoenberg of organizing all the twelve notes within the chromatic scale to represent a structured row. Composers will then use the structured row to form permutations. Additionally, they use the organized row to create a uniform set of intervals, or a particular sequence of intermissions. On top of the created permutations are sets of notes, derived sets, which generate new rows.

The next step is to construct pitch rows that have brawny tonal inferences, and even compose tonal music through the twelve-tone technique. This is possible because of the very many existing tonal chord sequences that make use of all the twelve notes. Inmost cases, the structured rows have subsets (pitch center) meaning, a person can compose music centered on either one or multiple constituent pitches (Morgan, 1975, pp. 2-5).

At this point, the composer must also serialize the remaining elements of music. This is where the set theory comes in. Through parametrization, composers can serialize duration and spell out the set of durations. On the other hand, if composers choose to serialize the tone color, then they must identify a different set of tone colors to work on.

In general, serial composition relies on the twelve chromatic notes (aggregate) to create sets paramount in serial musical compositions. One of the laws of the twelve-tone technique is that within a row, every element or aggregate serialize after incorporating every element, and that each component should emerge in its rightful place within a series. Consequently, the composers may opt to partition the aggregate into subsets. Otherwise, any component or member that falls out of the subset becomes a complement.

An example of a subset is a hexachord that contains all permutations in their originals subset. If the subset is self-complementing, that is, encloses at least half of the set in addition to its complement, then such permutation becomes “prime combinatorial”. With all these in place, the aggregate becomes the required serial piece (Forte, 1964, pp. 136-184).


The development of serialism dates back to the era of classical writings. It is important to note that the debates and criticism surrounding the twelve-tone technique led to the development of serialism. Serialism brought coherence and other possibilities in music as experienced in many serial pieces. With serialism in music, many people are enjoying the passion and nonfigurative splendor in the world of music.


Bandur, M., 2001. Aesthetics of Total Serialism: Contemporary Research from Music to Architecture. Basel, Boston and Berlin: Birkhäuser.

Cott, J., 1973. Stockhausen; Conversations with the Composer”, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Delahoyde, M., (n.d.). 20th Century Music [Online] Available at: .

Forte, A., 1964. A Theory of Set-Complexes for Music. Journal of Music Theory, 8(2), 136-184.

Grant, M.,. 2001. Serial Music Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe: Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths, P., 2001. Serialism. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 23,116–123.

Morgan, R., 1975. Stockhausen Writings on Music. Musical Quarterly, 61 (1), 1–16.

Schoenberg, A., 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. (2nd ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Smith-Brindle, R., 1966. Serial Composition. London, New York: Oxford University Press.

White, E. & Noble, J., 1984. Stravinsky: The New Grove Modern Masters. London: Macmillan Publishers.

Zerzan, J., 1999. Tonality and Totality [Online] Available at: .

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