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Most of the Western music that is popular today is tonal, but around the beginning of the twentieth century, composers of "Classical" or Art music (see below ) began experimenting with methods of composing atonal music. "Atonal" literally means "not tonal". As the name implies, atonal music treats all notes and harmonies as equal and in fact tries to avoid melodies and harmonies that will make the piece sound tonal. One type of atonal music is twelve-tone music, which seeks to use each of the notes of the chromatic scale equally. Other pieces may even dispense with the idea that music has to consist of notes; compositions may be collections of sounds and silences. Since the music is not organized by the familiar rules of Western music, many people have trouble appreciating atonal music without some help or study.

Music can be more or less tonal without becoming completely atonal, however. Music that does not stray at all from its key is called diatonic . Many Western children's songs, folk songs, and pop songs are in this category. But composers often add some notes or even whole sections of music that are from a different key, to make the music a little more complex and interesting. Music that goes even further, and freely uses all the notes of the chromatic scale , but still manages to have a tonal "home", is called chromatic . Music that has more than one tonal center at the same time (Ives was particularly fond of this composition technique) is called polytonal .

Classical and art music

Popular music is, by definition, music that appeals to many people. You don't have to know anything about music to like a pop tune - it's "catchy". Art music is a catch-all term for any music that is enjoyed by a smaller crowd. This can include the more challenging types of jazz and rock music, as well as Classical. Most people agree that the appreciation of art music requires some study, careful listening, or other extra effort. But it can be harder to agree on what exactly belongs in this category. This is at least partly because popular tastes do change. For example, most operas were written to be popular, middle-class entertainments, and artists such as Liszt and Paganini enjoyed rock-star-like fame and popularity in their day. Today, however, nineteenth century operas are no longer considered popular entertainment, and popular works that could technically be considered opera - except for the fact that they are written in popular musical styles - are instead grouped with musicals. As another example, ragtime was wildly popular during Scott Joplin's lifetime. It later fell out of favor and was known only to some jazz connoisseurs. Then in the 1970's it became popular again.

Classical music is a confusing term with more than one meaning. In the visual arts, the term classical refers to ancient Greece and Rome. In the 1700's, Western Europeans became very interested in the ancient classical style, which was imitated by many artists, sculptors, and architects. Art historians call that period the neoclassical ("new classical"). Unfortunately, nobody really knows what the music of ancient times sounded like. So instead of being influenced by the sound of ancient Greek music, eighteenth-century composers were influenced by the ideals of classical art. The music of Mozart, Haydn, and the early works of Beethoven are in this style, which we call classical rather than neoclassical, because the original classical music of ancient Greece and Rome is lost. (And actually, it probably would sound very exotic and Non-Western to us if we could listen to it!)

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Understanding basic music theory. OpenStax CNX. Jan 10, 2007 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10363/1.3
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