THE TWELVE-TONE ROW
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.