What is a twelve-tone Technique?

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Introduction: Twelve-tone Technique

The twelve-tone technique, also known as dodecaphony, is a method of composition that emerged in the early 20th century and revolutionized the world of classical music. Developed by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, this technique sought to break away from the traditional tonal system and introduce a new approach to organizing musical pitches. The core principle of twelve-tone composition is the use of a tone row, which is a specific ordering of the twelve chromatic pitches that form the basis of a piece. The row is then manipulated by various transformations, such as inversion, retrograde, and transposition, to create melodic and harmonic material. This approach allows for the exploration of new tonal possibilities, dissonant harmonies, and a sense of equality among the twelve pitches. The twelve-tone technique has had a significant impact on various genres of music, including film scoring, where it has been employed to evoke complex emotions and create unique soundscapes.

Creating tone rows

Twelve-tone technique (or Twelve-tone serialism) uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. The composer writes the notes in a specific order (a “row”). Although they may be written in any octave, the notes must be played in order, one at a time, before repeating any of them.

Twelve-tone technique
Twelve-tone rows used in our music example


Twelve-tone writing strives to treat all 12 notes equally, without stressing one more than others. This approach contrasts with tonal writing, which favors one note/chord as a tonal center (the “tonic”). Thus, twelve-tone writing typically results in having no key center. Since the notes are arranged with a set of rules, this can create the unique effect of organized chaos. Many famous 20th century composers used this technique, including Anton Weber, Arnorld Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, and others.

Example Music

Here, we present a brief musical example that showcases our incorporation of twelve-tone row techniques. We have implemented the tone rows shown in the image above within our composition. In this brief example, we showcase a jazz-infused compositional style of film music, evoking the spirit of 1960s-1970s Hollywood crime dramas. Our inspiration for this piece stems from David Shire’s score for the film ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

It is worth stating that this example does have a key center of E. In fact, the bass plays an ostinato pattern based on E Dorian. Instead of adhering to a strict twelve-tone composition method, we wrote the piece by adapting the basic principles of twelve-tone writing to the melody.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.

View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson.

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