THE TWELVE-TONE ROW

Australian Guitar - - Technique -

Look­ing to put a lit­tle more excitement into your pro­gres­sive metal riffs? Want to spice up your jazz with some re­ally out­side ideas? Do you write film sound­tracks and need to re­ally un­set­tle an au­di­ence dur­ing a key creep-out scene? Per­haps you need the twelve-tone tech­nique.

Also known as a twelve-tone row, twelve-tone se­ri­al­ism or do­de­caphony, the twelve-tone tech­nique is a com­po­si­tional style cre­ated by Arnold Schoen­berg in 1921, and it’s as much a con­cep­tual ap­proach as it is a mu­si­cal one. The idea is to give all 12 notes of the chro­matic scale equal weight within a piece of mu­sic. It could be de­scribed sim­ply as play­ing a melody con­sist­ing of all 12 notes, with none of them played twice.

In its truest form, this means the tech­nique strips your melody of an ac­tual key and makes each note rel­a­tive to the notes that come be­fore it in the ‘ clus­ter’, rather than rel­a­tive to a root note. The tech­nique has its roots in freely atonal mu­sic, which al­lows for the rep­e­ti­tion of notes while still con­sciously avoid­ing a clear tonal cen­tre. How­ever, we hu­mans are great at try­ing to pick out pat­terns even where one doesn’t ex­ist, and that in­cludes misiden­ti­fy­ing a re­peated note as be­ing of more im­por­tance to the key than the other notes we hear.

There are four rules to this con­cept, ac­cord­ing to Ge­orge Pearl’ s Se­rial Com­po­si­tion And Atonal­ity: An In­tro­duc­tion To The Mu­sic Of Schoen­berg, Berg, And We bern (1977).

• The row is a spe­cific order­ing of all 12 notes of the chro­matic scale (with­out re­gard to oc­tave place­ment).

• No note is re­peated within the row.

• The row may be sub­jected to in­ter­val-pre­serv­ing trans­for­ma­tions; that is, it may ap­pear in in­ver­sion (de­noted I), ret­ro­grade (R), or ret­ro­grade-in­ver­sion (RI), in ad­di­tion to its ‘orig­i­nal’ or prime form (P).

• The row in any of its four trans­for­ma­tions may be­gin on any de­gree of the chro­matic scale; in other words, it may be freely trans­posed. Trans­po­si­tion be­ing an in­ter­val-pre­serv­ing trans­for­ma­tion, this is tech­ni­cally cov­ered al­ready by three. Trans­po­si­tions are in­di­cated by an in­te­ger be­tween zero and 11, de­not­ing the num­ber of semi­tones: thus, if the orig­i­nal form of the row is de­noted P0, then P1 de­notes its trans­po­si­tion up­ward by one semi­tone (sim­i­larly, I1 is an up­ward trans­po­si­tion of the in­verted form, R1 of the ret­ro­grade form, and RI1 of the ret­ro­grade-in­verted form).

Of course, a lot of us who read this mag­a­zine are rock gui­tarists, and we care not for rules – in fact, we love hav­ing them spelled out for us just so we can break them. So, if we’re trans­lat­ing the con­cept of a twelve-tone row to the con­text of, say, a riff or a gui­tar solo, there are lots of fun things we can do. For ex­am­ple:

• Break the ‘no tonal cen­tre’ con­cept im­me­di­ately by adding a twelve-tone row as the tag of an ex­ist­ing riff, start­ing and begin­ning on the root note of the riff.

• Note the ‘with­out re­gard to oc­tave place­ment’ rule. That means you don’t have to play ev­ery note within the same oc­tave. On the gui­tar, this is re­ally easy to vi­su­alise if you have a 24-fret neck: try writ­ing a twelve-tone row on one string only, and choose spe­cific notes to tap in the higher oc­tave in-be­tween fret­ted notes in the lower one.

• For that mat­ter, use the whammy pedal. Whammy pedal, dude!

• Do you have two gui­tarists and a lot of time? You can do all sorts of wacky stuff, like both play­ing com­pletely dif­fer­ent twelve-tone rows against each other, play­ing the same one in dif­fer­ent oc­taves, or con­sciously writ­ing a coun­ter­point part that func­tions as a proper har­mony. Or, have fun with time by hav­ing one gui­tarist play a fast suc­ces­sion of notes while the other plays longer ones, and chal­lenge your­selves by mak­ing sure nei­ther is play­ing the same note at the same time.

Ul­ti­mately, the twelve-tone tech­nique is lim­ited only by your imag­i­na­tion, and there’s no rea­son to be too strict about your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it – un­less you re­ally want to be. Give it a try and see what it can bring to your mu­sic. If noth­ing else, it’s a fun way to re­ally mess with your au­di­ences’ heads for a bar or so be­fore you bring it back to nor­mal; be­fore they can fig­ure out what the hell just hap­pened.

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