A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 44. Expressionism

Chapter 41.
Chapter 42.
Chapter 43.
. Image
Chapter 45.
Chapter 46.
Chapter 47.
Chapter 48.
Chapter 49.
Chapter 50.
Chapter 51.
Chapter 52.

EXPRESSIONISM: an appeal to the emotions

ImageGeorges Roualt:
The Old King
Roualt shows us more than just a portrait of a king; it is easy to imagine something dark and disturbing going on in his mind.1916


EXPRESSIONISM, also known as non-serial atonality, is the historical continuation of the Common Practice Period. Unlike Neo-classicism, which was a return to the past, Expressionism followed a virtually unbroken line. Arnold Schönberg, the Expressionist champion, began composing in the 19th century in the Romantic tradition. He soon expanded and developed his musical materials, particularly in the areas of dissonance and chromaticism. He avoids a sense of a single tonal center, he delays the resolution of dissonance until there was no resolution, and frees chromatic pitches of their need to resolve. His melodies shrink to simple motives, then ultimately to just intervals. His textures change suddenly and often.

Expressionism is most frequently associated with the word ATONAL (which means "without a tonal center"). Strictly speaking, this is inaccurate, since ALL pitches in Expressionism are considered to be equal in importance. Schönberg preferred the word PANTONAL (meaning "all pitches equally tonal").

One of the most curious changes that occurs is that melodies and harmonies tend to be constructed alike. There is little, if any, distinction between vertical and horizontal structures; in the Common Practice Period, melodies had a predominance of stepwise motions but harmonies were constructed in 3rds. Expressionism tends to use the same principles in structuring both.

Expressionism developed in the 1920's into Serialism, and many Expressionistic elements continue to be used today.



At a glance:

basically maintains:
generally modifies:
completely changes:xxxxx

  1. Tonality

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential organization is around a single pitch, the tonic, which provides a home base to the ear. All other pitches work to establish the pre-eminence of tonic. Furthermore, an organization of phrases (generally made up of 4, 8, or 16 measures) expand the establishment of tonic; all phrases end with a cadence which confirms this sense of tonic.

    In Expressionism:

    1. Expressionistic music does not isolate a single pitch as tonic. Although it is somewhat inevitable that some pitches become more important than others, the basic precept is that all pitches are equal.

    2. Generally, clear phrases and cadences are either absent or extremely difficult to isolate.

  2. Vocabulary

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential vocabulary is a diatonic pattern of seven stepwise pitches called major and minor scales. Chromatic pitches, the remaining five, can be used, but only to enhance the diatonic ones.

    In Expressionism:

    1. The pitch inventory of a piece of Expressionistic music can include all 12 chromatic pitches, and may be used in any order.

    2. Melodies tend to be reduced to short motives.

    3. Pitch as a concept is generally less important in defining the music than the intervals between pitches. Intervals tend to group together into CELLS, or SETS.
      1. Sets are analyzed for the total interval content. Please note that there is no real distinction made between melody, harmony, and counterpoint.

        B - G#= m3
        G#- G = m2
        B - G = M3
        Gb- B = P4
        Gb- F = m2
        Gb- G = m2
        B - F = A4
        B - G = M3
        F - G = M2
        E - C = M3
        E - Bb= A4
        E - B = P4
        E - G = m3
        C - Bb= M2
        C - B = m2
        C - G = P4
        Bb- B = m2
        Bb- G = m3
        B - G = M3

      2. The interval content is arranged inside brackets showing the number of like intervals in ascending order [#m2, #M2, #m3, #M3, #P4, #TT], called INTERVAL VECTORS.


      3. Intervals are not calculated beyond tritones; larger intervals are simply inversions of the smaller and are considered to be the same interval class. For example, the M3 is the same interval class as the m6, and the P4 is the same interval class as the P5. In the second example above, the Gb-B (an A3) was calculated as a P4 (F#-B). Always calculate to the smallest, most simple interval.

      4. The enharmonic spellings of the 12 chromatic pitches are considered to be absolutely equal (unlike the Common Practice Period). For example, A# and Bb are the same thing. The proper spelling for intervals should always reflect the simplest possible interval, using the labels "perfect", "major", and "minor" as often as possible.

    4. Melodies tend to move quickly from one register to another, creating large leaps, creating greater interest (POINTILLISM).

  3. Texture

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential texture is created with counterpoint, which is two or more simultaneous individual and independent lines, each of which confirms the pre-eminence of tonic and utilizes the vocabulary of a major or minor scale.

    In Expressionism:

    1. In Expressionistic music there is virtually no distinction made between melody and counterpoint, as seen above. Texture moves freely between simple melodic line and complex contrapuntal textures.

    2. Texture can be achieved through timbre (tone color) and dynamics as well as pitches.
      1. Timbre (which includes the color of instruments and the color of articulations, textures, and densities) tend to be subtle, varied, and notated specifically.

      2. These consistent changes of instrumental color, articulations, textures, and densities can create a strong sense of forward direction in the music, equal to (and possibly even exceeding) the importance of pitch and rhythm. This is called KLANGFARBEN (literally, in German, "sound-color").

        There is an interesting example of klangfarben in One Note Band. While not Expressionistic music, the flow of the piece is governed by the changing timbres as much (if not more) than the pitches.

        Another interesting example of both klangfarben and pointillism can be observed in this recent ad for National Park Service, using a familiar tune.

        A more characteristic example of klangfarben in Expressionistic music is the third movement, Farben, from Five Pieces for Orchestra by Arnold Schönberg. The piece is essentially a single harmony throughout, but the instrumental timbres and over-laying embellishments are in constant flux.

      3. Dynamics tend to be varied and notated specifically.

      4. Dynamics tend to change suddenly rather than to following traditional crescendos and decrescendos.

  4. Sonorities

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential sonority (chord) is consonant and is a group of three notes (a triad) arranged in thirds (tertian). Dissonance is used, which could be a group of four notes arranged in thirds (a tertian tetrad) or non-chordal embellishments (passing and neighboring tones, suspensions, and pedals, among others). All dissonances are required to resolve.

    In Expressionism:

    1. In Expressionistic music there is virtually no distinction made between melody and harmony, as seen above. There is no separate procedure for creating sonorities as compared to creating melody.

    2. Dissonance is completely emancipated, and has no requirement to resolve to consonance.

  5. Time organization

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential time organization is based on a consistent and unchanging beat. These beats organize into 2, 3, or 4 essential pulses per measure, with the first beat always the strongest. Each beat can sub-divide into two parts (simple meters) or three parts (compound meters).

    In Expressionism:

    1. Rhythms are generally subtle and irregular (those which demonstrate great variety and do not occur in regular repeated patterns). Please note: no matter how irregular rhythms become, they are always notated to show where the main beats are located. This frequently requires many ties.

      Learn more about beaming to show beats

    2. The complexity created from these subtle and irregular rhythms can also be achieved through constantly changing meter signatures as well.




Isolate the interval vectors and locate all the musical elements that are typical, characteristic, or unique to Expressionism in the following pieces in Music for Analysis:

  1. Arnold Schönberg: Drei Klavierstucke, op.11, no.1 [#439] Listen to a performance
  2. Arnold Schönberg: Sechs Klavierstucke, op.19, no.2 [#440] Listen to a performance
  3. Anton Webern: Song, op.3, no.1 (1909) [ATM #11] Listen to a performance


Write an Expressionistic piece for piano, one page or less, which is a complete musical thought. Consider the musicality of your work. Play back your work on the computer through MIDI (or better yet, have someone perform it for you on the piano) to guide you. The final result must be playable.

To prepare this writing assignment properly, use the notation guidelines appendix, located at Basic Principles of Music Notation, Semester IV.

Submit a MIDI file via email in addition to a print-out of the project.

  1. Use the interval vector [100011] with proper enharmonic spellings
  2. Utilize a pitch inventory of all 12 chromatic pitches
  3. Use klangfarben (frequent coloristic changes) throughout
  4. Use pointillism (numerous and dramatic register changes) throughout
  5. Use highly irregular rhythms (notated with beats showing by proper beaming) throughout
  6. Use many changing meter signatures (do not use the common time or alla breve meter signatures)
  7. Indicate tempo with a metronome marking (showing the correct beat unit)
  8. Indicate mood with descriptive word(s) in English
  9. Utilize a great variety of dynamics (see #3 above), and no "mezzo" dynamics
  10. Utilize a great variety of appropriate articulations, one for each note

The grading for this project:

Click here to view a sample Expressionism project


Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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