Beyond the Veil: Twelve-Tone Technique

For this week’s Beyond the Veil, I’ll be your substitute teacher. We’re going to look into twelve-tone technique, also called dodecaphony and twelve-tone serialism. It’s a technique used in some of today’s more “intellectual” metal writing. It’s a useful knowledge to possess, as it can add colour to your compositional palette and help you grow as a musician and as a listener as well. So, let’s lift the veil of obscurity on twelve-tone serialism, and let me introduce you to this technique, listeners and musicians alike!

Let’s start at the beginning

Occidental music – the music you are most probably the most familiar with if you come from Europe or the Americas – is centred around the use of the octave (the interval between the same note but higher or lower) divided in twelve equal parts: the chromatic notes or semi-tones. In tonal music, these are often separated intp groups of seven notes, called scales, and those outside the scale are not played. Those seven notes will then be subdivided according to the tonic of the scale, the tonic being the note around which the scale is built. For example, in the key of C major, the note of C is the most important one in the scale; it is the tonic. After that will come the fifth, the fourth, and so on. In dodecaphonic music, our subject for today, it’s quite the opposite; the very foundation of the twelve-tone system is to put all the notes on the same level; no note is more important than the others. This was created by Arnold Schoenberg, who did some whacky compositions. If you listen to this, you can clearly hear every note being played. The perceived focal point in the music is ever-shifting, and it makes the whole sound very alien to the unaccustomed ear.

In twelve-tone composition, you’ll have to line up every note of the chromatic scale one after the other, in any order you like, in what we call a tone row. Of course, placing every note after the other in order is pretty boring, but you can make some very interesting strings of notes by subdividing the twelve spots in four rows of three notes, three rows of four notes, two rows of four and two of two notes, etc. Then, each sub-row can have the notes of a tetrachord, for example. Ron Jarzombek, known for playing in acts such as WatchTower and Spastic Ink, uses almost exclusively this technique for his newest projects: Blotted Science and Terrestrial Exiled. He also makes great explanatory videos of his songs, where you’ll be able to tell some of the dodecaphonic composition techniques such as tone rows and row subdivision. If you know how musicians write these pieces, you will be able to hear the techniques and identify them when listening to new music.

Warning: it’s about to get real

In the most strict serialist sense, each note would only be allowed to be played once in a row, but it’s art and taking liberties with rules is often more fun – and sounds better. That being said, you can do many things with your tone row. Once it’s set-up, you can play it in its original form, or play it in reverse order. That means reading the partition from end to start, beginning with the last note of the row. Or, you can invert it. This means that, starting on the same note, you will invert the signs of the interval changes. For example, if the first three notes are C♯, E♭, and B♭, starting from C♯, your first interval change is +2 semitones, and the next one is -5. If you take these intervals and invert them, you’ll get C♯, minus two to B, and plus five to E. That’s your inverted row. On top of that you can reverse the inverted to have another one!

The possibilities are almost endless: you can change the pitch of the first note to bring the whole row up or down, you can apply any rule you want to transform it, you can double its speed, or halve it, and anything in-between. But wait, there’s more! You can subdivide the row in any way you like and apply any transformation to any sub-row, you can layer tone rows on top of one another and make them go from one instrument to another, in the spirit of a fugue, use random number generators for building your tone rows… Really, anything you could think about. Therefore, sometimes, when you’re listening to weird-sounding music, you will be able to tell if it’s simply atonal or dodecaphonic, and also if it’s serialist or not!

It can be quite daunting if you’re a musician, when faced with such immense possibilities, to start and actually do something, just because you’re too free. You don’t know where to begin. Well, my advice is: take it one step at a time. Open up Guitar Pro or get a piece of music sheet, and start by writing a tone row: twelve chromatic notes in any order you like. Get your guitar or piano and play it; do you like it? What could be changed so that it sounds better? Write a song around it, or maybe just one riff before going back to tonal music. Mess around with this technique at home and it’ll be a ludic lesson. For the listeners reading this, listen to many twelve-tone composers and try to find what sets them apart in your head. Even if I just explained what it’s theoretically about, every person will have their own way, their own hints to figure out if what they’re listening to is twelve-tone music. But to find them, you have to listen to a lot of twelve-tone music, you have to get your ear familiar with the technique and how it sounds.

In conclusion, twelve-tone composition is merely a way to make every note equal. By letting go of the tonal centre and treating each note in relation to its neighbours only, we get a new musicality, a new kind of sound that’s foreign but that you can still tame by listening to it more frequently. For the aspiring musician, it’s a new tool to add variety to your compositions, and for the music lover, it’s a challenge that will widen your tastes and knowledge in music.

Moreover, I’d truly recommend you watch this video, by recreational mathematician and musician Victoria Hart. It explains quite thoroughly the twelve-tone system and transforms well-known songs with twelve-tone serialism.

If you want more metal examples of twelve-tone being used, either strictly or more freely depending on the artist, check out the following bands, as well as the aforementioned band Blotted Science.
Terrestrial Exiled | Peculate | Jute Gyte