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In music, the absence of functional harmony as a primary structural element. Probably originally a pejorative term applied to music of extreme chromaticism, it has become the most widely used descriptive term for 20th-century music whose connection with tonality is difficult to hear. Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern are regarded as the seminal atonal composers; the serialism of their later work is often distinguished from their earlier free atonality.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on atonality, visit Britannica.com.