Music Serialism Techniques

Integral Serialism combines many elements into one formulaic composition.

Serialism is one of the most profound advancements in the music of the 20th century. Whether you love it or hate it, this music is here to stay as part of the great Western classical music tradition. Learning about some of the techniques and what makes this music work will help you to appreciate and enjoy this advanced music.


Twelve-tone music is a system that was promoted and initially codified by composer Arnold Schoenberg. This type of music uses all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale without repetition to create music that is without a tonal center. All 12-tone music consists of a tone row in which all 12 pitches are ordered according to a specific arrangement. The order of pitches is not predetermined; it is up to the composer to choose how to order the 12 pitches. Once the order of pitches has been determined, it is then possible to create a 12 X 12 grid of those pitches to create other possibilities for use in the composition. When composing, the composer will move from one end of the grid to the other without skipping any pitches.

There are four basic forms of the row:

1. Prime: In this form, the row moves from left to right.

2. Retrograde: This is the reverse of Prime; the pitches move from right to left.

3. Inversion: This occurs when the row moves from top to bottom on the grid.

4. Retrograde Inversion: This occurs when the row moves from the bottom to the top of the grid.

In addition to types of rows, each row in the grid is numbered using a specific formula, starting with C: C = 0, C# = 1, D = 2, D# = 3, E = 4, etc. This makes it easy to refer to a particular row, such as "Prime 4" or "Inversion 4," which would start with E and then move along the row.

The initial row is decided upon by the composer, so any series of pitches could follow E. Rows only move from side to side, or up and down. Rows do not move diagonally across the grid. It is also important to note that while the pitches must be used in order once the set is created, the following elements are not restricted:

1. Rhythm

2. Dynamics

3. Register

4. Articulations


Combinatoriality occurs when you have two rows that are combined to make two separate sets. As long as pitches are not repeated within the rows, two sets of 12 tone rows may be split in half and combined. It is important to choose two sets that will work together without duplicating pitches. Here is an example of two rows combined to make two new sets:

Row 1 Prime 4: E F G C# F# D# G# D B C A A#

Row 2 Inversion 11: B A# G# D A C G C# E D# F# F

The first set will use the first six pitches of the Prime row and the last six pitches of the Inversion: E F G C# F# D# + B A# G# D A C

The second set will use the remaining pitches: A# A C B D G# + G C# E D# F# F (Note that you can reverse the order of pitches, but they should be used in the same order.)

By splitting in half and combining these two different 12-tone rows, you create combinatoriality or a mixing of two divisions of the sets. When doing this you should keep the original order of the set as composers typically don't change the order of pitches. It depends on how literally they are adhering to the "rules" of 12-tone composition.

Integral Serialism

There is another more specific and limited type of 12-tone music, in which every element of the composition is restricted based on the form of the row that is being used. In integral serialism, aspects of the composition in addition to the order of the row are restricted. A composer writing integral serialism may choose to assign specific dynamics or a specific rhythm to each version of the row. The amount of assignment can vary from restricting one element or several elements, choosing from rhythm, dynamics, register and articulations. In this type of composition every aspect of the work is very carefully controlled. This severely limits what the composer is able to do with his work. Once the initial decisions have been made as to the order of the row and the elements to be restricted, the composer is left simply to notate the piece.

Other Serial Techniques

While the most common uses of serialism employ all 12 pitches, there are also some composers who choose to use a different number of pitches. In these compositions, sets of notes involving any number of pitches are used to create the work. Luciano Berio, in his famous piece, "Nones," uses a total of 13 pitches.


Ultimately, a composer is free to choose how to approach serialism. However, the basic principles of restriction and order usually apply, whether using five pitches or a standard 12-tone row.


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