An Introduction to Serialism

The 20th century was a time of great experimentation and serialism (or twelve tone music) was a “20th century revolution in composition” (The Oxford Dictionary of Music) in which the traditional rules of melody, harmony and tonality were replaced.

Most (not all, but most) of the western classical and popular music we hear is based on major scales, minor scales or possibly modes.
In Serialism, these are not used!
Serialism is based on a “series” of notes that determines the development of the composition.
As a result, serialist compositions sound radically different to the listener!!

Who “Invented” Serialism Music?

Serialism started with Schoenberg’s work with atonality, which led to his system of composing with 12 notes – his “Twelve Tone Technique” (1923).
Since then, a number of other composers have used serialism techniques, such as Webern and Berg.

I am going to show you how serialism works by taking you through how to compose a piece of serialism music.

A Worked Example of Serialism

The Note Row

The first step in creating a piece of serialism is to choose the “series” of notes.
This series of notes is called the Note Row.
The note row is a series of intervals that uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale (hence the name 12 tone music) in an order chosen by the composer.
So, here is the chromatic scale:

The Chromatic Scale
The Chromatic Scale

Now I am going to rearrange them in the order I would like them to be in to create my note row:

My Note Row
Note Row Example sheet music
Play Note Row Example

Some composers select the order for the note row before beginning to play the composition, whilst others may improvise a melody and develop the note row from it.

3 rules of “strict serialism”:

  1. No note should be repeated until all 12 notes of the note row have been played
  2. The order of the series remains the same throughout the composition, except for some allowed changes.
  3. Notes can be played at any octave – this is why you will often see very large leaps in pitch in serialist compositions.

Note: as is the case with all “musical rules”, composers love to break them!! Schoenberg often broke the rules above, as did other composers of serialism, such as Berg and Webern.

Inversion, Retrograde and Retrograde Inversion

There are 3 ways in which the Note Row can be altered:


The first method in which the note row can be change is through inversion.
With the inversion technique the intervals between the notes are reversed. If you are unsure about intervals have a look at my lesson on musical intervals first.

So, in my serialist example the note row begins on a D sharp and goes up an interval of 7 semitones to the next note – an A sharp.Seven semitones up interval
In my inversion, this is reversed. I start on the D sharp again, but this time it goes down an interval of 7 semitones to the next note – a G sharp.Seven semitones down interval

This continues on to the next note.
My note row goes down 4 semitones from the A sharp to an F sharp.Four semitones down interval
My inversion goes up 4 semitones from the G sharp to a C natural.Four semitones up interval

This process of inverting the intervals carries on until the end of the note row is reached and a completed inversion of the note row is produced:

My Inversion
Inversion Example
Play Inversion Example


The retrograde is easier to understand than the inversion.
The retrograde is simply the note row in reverse order:

My Retrograde
Retrograde Example
Play Retrograde Example

Retrograde inversion

The retrograde inversion sounds incredibly complex, but is actually quite easy to work out.
It is simply the inversion played backwards:

My Retrograde Inversion
Retrograde Inversion Example sheet music
Play Retrograde Inversion Example

Developing My Piece of Serialism

I have now produced my 4 orders of notes – Note Row, Inversion, Retrograde and Retrograde Inversion, and will use them as the basic structure of my piece.

Rhythms, dynamics and articulation/phrasing are hugely important in serialism as they bring variety to a piece.
I have tried to use all of these techniques in developing my piece and have followed the “rules” of serialism closely so it provides a clear example of “strict serialism”.

The piece is titled “Ice Melt”.

Example of Serialism by Ben Dunnett Sheet Music

Finished Serialism Piece

Hope you enjoyed(!!) listening to the piece.

I have annotated the sheet music to show where the different techniques of note row, inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion are being used.

I am sure you will agree that serialism produces a unique sound – it is typically “mysterious”, “unnerving” and even “painful”.
I chose the title “Ice Melt” because I wanted to capture the unpredictability of ice melting (you can never be sure when a piece will break off and drop to the ground) and also because the prospect of ice melting on a global scale is unnerving and scary.

The Public Response To Serialism

Changes and developments in music are often accompanied by mixed reviews and opinions. Serialism has certainly proved to be a very controversial technique. It is easy with hindsight to look back on these developments and experiments and be overly critical, but developments like serialism do raise important questions –

  • “What makes a piece of music sound “right”?”
  • “Did the serialist composers think they were on the brink of discovering a totally new sound that would revolutionise music?”
  • “Did some of the experimentation through techniques such as serialism lay foundations for future musical developments?”
  • “Surely serialism is simply the perfect composing technique for soundtracks to science fiction movies?!?”

It is true that serialism has not surprisingly never achieved widespread popularity, but that does not negate its value. It may just be that, as Pierre Boulez commented, serialist composers “did not take into account sufficiently the way music is perceived by the listener.”

Other Examples of Serialism Music

A number of composers have incorporated serialist techniques into their compositions, including Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez and Babbitt.
By the 1950’s various musical elements of compositions (e.g. dynamics, rhythms, etc..) were being serialised by composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.
Messiaen incorporated the serialisation of durations in his “Technique de mon langage musical”.
Serialism was certainly a significant chapter in the development of 20th century Western classical music.