20th Century Blues


Why does someone sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart.

– Dmitri Shostakovich

CHAPTER AIM: Exploring dissonance and atonality



Tone Description

Shostakovich Quartet, 2nd movement   

Let’s attempt a description of this music. It is clearly restless, thrusting and jabbing, as if about to skitter out of control, or swerving fast and unsteady on ice. And yet it drives forward, frantic, and yet oddly insistent.

It feels nervous. Neurotic. guernica


How about a harmonic description? How do we describe the harmonic fabric of this music? What kind of musical palette does Shostakovich use?

There is a strong feeling of dissonance, or at least a clashing sense of harmony. We no longer inhabit the world of Bach or Mozart, music with a strong sense of a harmonic base or root. Here there is a great feeling of instability: we don’t know quite where to root ourselves. It’s not clear where our home, our centre is.

This is 20th century music, music we might label ‘modern’ or ‘modernist’. And yet, even though this music doesn’t sound harmonious, it still belongs to the basic harmonic language established over the previous centuries. In other words, it may be discordant, but it is not atonal.

To explain that, we need a quick side-bar on the history of Harmony in Western Music.



A Very Brief History of Western Harmony

Mozart, Jupiter Symphony Finale  

Over the course of over 500 years, from medieval times through to the music of Bach and Beethoven, a system of music – an agreed musical grammar – had evolved and become generally accepted (a story covered in a little more detail in Harmony).

This system – known as the tonal system – was based on the concept of key. A piece was written in a particular key, a key that can be articulated by the major scale and the three-note major triad (as discussed HERE in Bach 4 and in Beethoven 4). Oil_painting_palette

Once you are planted within this harmonic system, there is a harmonic network of relationships between keys that is automatically defined. Some neighbouring keys are more closely related to our root key, our tonic. Some are more distantly related.

The new harmonic grammar meant the ability to travel between different keys, within the same piece of music. That journey allows the development of the music: our journey from and back to your home key becomes a way to breathe movement and narrative into what is – don’t forget – a very abstract art-form.

We are aware of our home key – even if this awareness is subconscious. We feel our root key. Our journey away and back to our tonic key can now become a narrative, a story, a process for that music to go through and develop. And when we return to our home key, we feel instinctively we are on the last stretch, returning home.

This Western Harmonic system had a number of rules, or what might be better termed as a network of relationships, that described and defined it. Certain keys were more closely related than others, and your journey between those keys would be circumscribed by those relationships.

Which still leaves of course a huge harmonic palette to play with, particularly in exploring more exotic harmonic relationships. Which is exactly what composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven did.



Harmonic Colour

Wagner, Tristan & Isolde   

Hardly a generation after Beethoven, Wagner was pushing those harmonic boundaries further and further. It’s an exploration of harmonic space that gives Wagner’s music a feeling of freedom and freshness, of exploring and probing the boundaries of harmonics. Wagner achieved this effect by adding colour to the mixture, in the form of intense chromaticism.

Artist at work!

Artist at work!

Instead of the seven-note tonal scale, Wagner probed the chromatic twelve-note scale, finding new harmonics with the smallest interval in music: the semi-tone. It’s a story we looked in detail in  Wagner 4


As the 19th century became the 20th, the next generation of European composers like Mahler and Debussy pushed this system to its very limits. At much the same time, in America, a new form of harmonic expression appeared. Here, the semi-tones of major and minor keys are pushed together into the same harmonic space, a sound we now call The Blues (as explored in Gershwin 7.

So right across the western world, the harmonic system was being pushed to its limits.

But in 1920’s Vienna, those limits were destroyed entirely.



Harmonic destruction

Schonberg, Op 23   

The boundaries of the tonal system were obliterated by a group of composers based in Vienna. Led by Arnold Schoenberg, this set of composers rather imaginatively became known as the Second Viennese School (the first being Mozart & Haydn).

Schoenberg, self-portrait

Schoenberg, self-portrait

These composers proposed – and composed with – a system of music called Serialism. It is a deliberate resetting of the entire edifice of Western tonal music, carefully constructed over the centuries.


With Serialism, when you played any particular note of the twelve-note octave, you had to follow with each of the other eleven notes. Pick the order, the rhythm, but no repeat of any note in the octave without first articulating the other 11 notes. That destroys the harmonic relationship of music.

In traditional Western Music, tonal clusters inevitably develop around related keys. So music written in a particular key inevitably gravitates towards particular harmonic neighbours.


Serialism forced a type of democratization of music. All notes are equal (though perhaps inevitably, some are more equal than others).

With 20th century atonal music, there is no harmonic framework at all. This music has no Tonic, no root key, and indeed no way of ever establishing key. There is nowhere we can call home.

If you think of the twentieth century as a place of alienation, experimentation, and fragmentation, then this is the soundtrack. Harmony, as we intuitively hear it and feel it, has been dismantled.



Shostakovich and Harmony

Shostakovich Quartet, 2nd movement   

Return to our Shostakovich, and we find we’re in nothing like such a state of extreme harmonic abandonment as that Second Viennese School. There may be dissonance and clashing harmonies here, but this music is not atonal.


Art gets abstract

We are still essentially rooted in our traditional western harmonic system, even if it’s not making itself very clear. There is a harmonic basis to this music, a place we faintly recollect as home.

Nonetheless, that system is under some kind of attack. There is tonal instability, and a strong sense of dissonance. This is the song of the wasp or hornet, rather than the blackbird or nightingale. There’s also not a huge amount to go on here. The information is sparse, and the harmonic space bare.


And it is fast. Like being in a continual state of transition. As soon as we think we are rooted, harmonically, the music darts off into a different direction. Where is our root key? Our tonic? Where is  our home??

Even when we land in relatively more stable harmonic territory, the texture of the key seems threadbare and exhausted.


A kind of harmonic blankness hangs over everything, only emphasized by those D-S-C-H melodic repetitions discussed last chapter:

0.27-0.49   Shostakovich Quartet   

It’s like we’re tearing forward, blindly, without really knowing where we are going. The harmonic language of the music seems to have no root or anchor.

But that doesn’t mean Shostakovich is writing atonal music. There is a definitely a harmonic basis to this music. It’s written in C minor.

If you are in any doubt of that, listen a minute into the piece, when that harmonic base, that home key, makes itself furiously clear…



Home Key

0.56-1.12  Shostakovich Quartet   

Now we are definitely on firm harmonic ground. We are in a key: C minor. The viola and cello are tell us this, down in the bass, throbbing away with the notes C – Eb – G.

Those three notes are the triad that make up the chord of C minor.   This explosion of harmony is an important moment in the piece. It’s important, because it’s repeated.


The second time comes right at the end of the movement:

2.24-2.38  Shostakovich Quartet end   

This time, the instruments have swapped. Now the two violins play the chord of C minor, whilst the viola and cello play the melody below. So we know we are within a key, and a harmonic language. This is the great tradition of Western classical music. But if we listen closer, we find a history and tradition very different to the harmonic language of Bach and Mozart.



Gypsy Dance

0.56-1.12  Shostakovich Quartet   

Jewish musicians, Ukraine 20's.

Jewish musicians, 20’s Ukraine

There is something exotic about this harmonic palette: a sound from the east. These are the harmonics of Klezmer, played by Gypsies, Jews, and other folk of Eastern Europe.

It’s not the first time Shostakovich was drawn to Jewish and Gypsy folk music. We’ll take a look closer at the harmonic underpinning to this Klezmer sound in a later Shostakovich chapter ( Shostakovich 6).


There is more than one harmonic language to this music, just as there is more than one voice screaming for articulation. In order to really get a grip on the meaning of this music, we’re going to have to take a more detailed look at the fascinating political and historical events behind this enigmatic music.

A journey for the next section of this course.