10 Essential Musical Terms

The absence of a main or central key around which music is organized. Atonal music does not rely on the traditional system of pitch organization, which uses keys, scales, triads, and interrelated chords to establish a tonic, or “home,” pitch. Therefore, to an ear trained in Western classical or popular music, atonal music sounds extremely dissonant.


Two or more notes that are perceived to “sound wrong” together. Dissonance feels unstable to the listener and calls for harmonic resolution. It is the opposite of consonance. In atonal music, dissonance can remain unresolved, and the music’s goal is no longer a final arrival at a tonic.


An artistic movement that originated in the visual arts in early 20th-century Germany and Austria. Expressionism sought to convey the turbulence of modern life. In reaction to the soft-edged naturalism of the Impressionists, Expressionist painters strove to invigorate their art with a visceral sensibility. In music, the Expressionist movement inspired the new atonal and emotionally charged style developing in Vienna.


The simultaneous sounding of pitches to produce chords, and the relationship between different chords as they succeed one another. Tonal harmony is based on progressions of chords in relation to a tonic (or home) key. In the 19th century, as composers sought novel sounds to reflect the originality of their invention, they began to employ chords and progressions of greater dissonance and greater distance from the tonic.


Historical forms
The phrase “musical form” refers to the organizing structure of a piece of music. Typically, this entails varying combinations of presentation, repetition, contrast, development, or transformation. Different forms have been more popular than others at various times in history, and thus may be referred to as “historical forms.” Examples may include the Baroque suite, passacaglia, rondo, sonata form, march, and rhapsody. In Wozzeck, Berg uses each of these historical forms as the organizing principle for a single scene.


A historical form that flourished in the 17th century and onwards, which features a series of variations built over a repeating bass pattern. Passacaglias typically have a serious or stately character, are in triple meter, and feature frequent dissonances on downbeats. The form had fallen out of favor by the mid-18th century, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, composers began incorporating aspects of the form in their works, most typically the development of variations over an ostinato bass. Berg’s use of the form in Act I, Scene 4 of Wozzeck is less conventional. His ostinato is a 12-tone theme, repeated in different registers throughout 21 variations.


Second Viennese School
A group of composers in early 20th-century Vienna, usually understood to include Arnold Schoenberg and his students (most prominently Alban Berg and Anton Webern). The artists of the Second Viennese School embraced atonality and 12-tone composition. The term was coined as a flattering reference to the “First Viennese School” of the Classical era, which included Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.


A German term meaning “speaking voice,” Sprechstimme refers to a vocal technique developed by Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg, in which a singer produces a sound halfway between speech and song. In Sprechstimme, the singer uses only approximate pitches and omits vocal support and prolongation but adheres precisely to the notated rhythm. An iconic example of Sprechstimme is Schoenberg’s 1912 composition Pierrot Lunaire.In Wozzeck, Berg employs a spectrum of vocal enunciations, including purely spoken dialogue, rhythmicized speech, Sprechstimme, half-song, and full song.


Ternary form
A three-part musical structure comprising an initial section, a contrasting section, and the return of the initial section. Ternary form can be represented using the letters A–B–A. In Wozzeck, Berg described the opera’s three acts as the three parts of a ternary form, with the second act forming the dramatic and musical center of the work.


The traditional system of organizing harmony in Western classical music from around 1600 through the early 20th century. Within the tonal system, chords are predominantly based on the pitches that form the scale of a specific key, with these chords organized into a hierarchy of greater and lesser importance based on their “distance” from the tonic. In a larger context, tonal compositions are usually written in a specific key, which begins and closes the work, with more exploratory harmonic material in the middle.