Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: serial music
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

the body of compositions whose fundamental syntactical reference is a particular ordering (called series or row) of the twelve pitch classes—C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B—that constitute the equal-tempered scale. In contrast to tonal music, whose unity is perceived in the primacy of a single construct, the triad (the major or minor chord), serial music is not pitch centric, i.e., there is no home key. Instead, the presence of harmonic successions resulting from controlled juxtaposition of various row forms gives serial pieces their coherence. These forms are the prime, retrograde (pitch order reversed), inversion (interval direction reversed), and retrograde inversion, and the twelve transpositional degrees of the foregoing. Thus, the row functions as an ordering of intervals and not of absolute pitches. In practice, the row can be presented linearly or chordally. The twelve-tone system evolved in the 1920s in the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg as the result of efforts to establish a unifying principle for nontonal music. Classic serial pieces include Schoenberg's Piano Suite, Op. 25 (1924) and von Webern's String Quartet, Op. 28 (1938). Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt have led efforts toward “total serialization,” the application of serial technique to rhythm, dynamics, and timbre, in addition to pitch. Important composers of serial music include Igor Stravinsky, Ernst Křenek, Egon Wellesz, and Walter Piston. For further information see separate articles on all composers mentioned in this article.

  • See Rufer, J. , Composition with Twelve Notes (tr. 1952);.
  • Perle, G. , Serial Composition and Atonality (3d ed. 1972).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Serial Music
Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought

Composers of serial music seek to remove randomness from their art by subjecting some or all of its elements—pitch, duration,...

Full text Article SERIALISM
The Edinburgh Dictionary of Modernism

Serialism is a method of musical composition which works with fixed ‘series’ of musical elements. Although it has links with methods to be found in

Full text Article Craft, Robert (Lawson)
The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US conductor and writer on music. From 1947 he was closely associated with Igor Stravinsky, and influenced his conversion to serial technique in the

See more from Credo