Hierarchy in music and society

In the realm of music there is the genre of what’s called “atonal music.” Basically this is music that avoids a key center. So while standard music is usually said to be in the key of C, or F#, or whatever, atonal music cannot be said to be in key. If you think of the key of most music as being its center of gravity, you could thinking of atonal music as kind of free floating. (In fact atonal music is often used for scenes of outer space in movies.)

In essence, what atonal music is doing is refusing to create a hierarchy of notes. In regular music, the most important note is the same as the key center. For example, C is the most important note in a song in the key of C major. It’s usually the starting and ending note of the song and it’s the note being hit when we feel a melody or musical phrase has “settled.”

My suspicion has been that atonal music grew out of the philosophy of communism and generally anti-hierachical political thought. To that way of thinking one thing should not be more important than any other. Including notes.

I was reading a book this morning on music and it made an interesting point. The whole class system of music which involves keys and hierarchies of notes really came about in the 1700s—right when the complex class system of people was cementing itself in Europe. So I must ponder that while it may be true that atonal music represents a political philosophy, so too does standard key based music.

Of course, part of why communism never really caught on (when it did it basically had to be implemented at the threat of a gun) was because hierarchical notions seem ingrained in our social intelligence (as they do in the intelligence of monkeys, birds and even ants.) And with music, something just feels right about key centers. And atonal music, while at times interesting, is challenging to listen to. It seems like we are wired for hierarchy in both social behavior and music.

Thus I have spoken.

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