Study: So-called ‘Atonal’ Music Just Been In A Minor All Along

Professor David Huron speaking at the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference this past Saturday in St. Louis. (Photo credit:

St. Louis, MO—In a surprising revelation, the body of repertoire thought not to have been written in a particular key—known for decades as “atonal” music—has actually just been in A minor all along, according to a new report.

After an exhaustive survey of hundreds of twentieth-century compositions long believed not to exist in a key, the authors of the 154-page report concluded that analysts of so-called “atonal music” have been systematically misled for more than a century.

The group of distinguished music theorists and composers responsible for the discovery summarized their findings in a paper given at the annual conference of the Society for Music Theory this past weekend in St. Louis.

“The evidence is conclusive. This music is in the key of A minor,” said Columbia University composition chair Fred Lerdahl, the report’s lead author. “Always has been, always will be.”

An excerpt from Arnold Schoenberg’s “Drei Klavierstücke”, Op. 11 in A minor.

Lerdahl and his team say they first suspected “atonal music” to be a misnomer while studying the scores of Arnold Schoenberg, famous for developing the “twelve-tone” method of composition, also known as “serialism.”

“We noticed that neither Schoenberg’s serial music nor his ‘freely atonal’ works feature any sharps or flats at the beginning of the score where one typically finds the key signature,” said David Huron, professor of music and cognition at Ohio State University.

“This has been widely interpreted as indicating that the music is not in a key. But now we know that’s wrong,” Huron continued. “In fact, zero sharps and zero flats is a key signature. It’s A minor.”

Huron cited the Circle of Fifths as the crucial piece of evidence proving “atonal” music to have been in A minor all this time.

“100 per cent of published Circle of Fifths diagrams give no sharps and flats as the key signature of both C major and A minor,” said Huron. “And since none of this music sounds very happy, we were able to rule out C major as the key signature. That leaves only one possibility—A minor.”

The Circle of Fifths

This revelation opened the floodgates to researchers, who scoured the Modernist repertoire for instances of pieces being misidentified as “atonal.” Nearly all of the works composed by Schoenberg and his most famous pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, were determined to be in A minor, as were the majority of compositions by Edgar Varèse, Elliott Carter, Mario Davidovsky, Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, and Charles Wuorinen, among many others.

“My colleagues and I were surprised to learn that some of the most famous compositions of the twentieth century, like Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du printemps’ and Bartók’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, have just been in A minor this whole time,” said Carol Krumhansl, professor of music psychology at Cornell University and a co-author of the report.

“Furthermore, I want to go on record as saying that musicologists have a responsibility to rename Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle sans tonalité’ in accordance with our team’s findings,” Krumhansl said. “It must be called ‘Bagatelle in A minor’ from now on.”

For some scholars, especially those who have made careers specializing in “post-tonal” music analysis, the news came as a shock.

“It was a bit of a jolt when I first read the report,” said Ian Quinn of Yale University. “To find out that the sophisticated analytical techniques you and your colleagues have been applying to what you thought was atonal music turn out to be completely erroneous—that’s hard to swallow.”

Quinn says that every sharp and flat found in these scores should instead be interpreted simply as raised or lowered scale degrees in A minor.

After catching wind of the report, several music schools and conservatories around the world today announced plans to overhaul their music theory and history curricula. Robert Cuckson, chair of the Techniques of Music Department at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, is said to have replaced the complicated texts traditionally used in the school’s twentieth-century theory courses—such as Allen Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music—with elementary primers on the tonal system and the Circle of Fifths.

According to Lerdahl, the impact of his team’s study will be felt for generations to come. “The entire academic study of music will have to be reconsidered,” he said.

“This will go down as the most significant finding in music theory since Rameau discovered tonality almost three centuries ago.”