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Use of an ordered set of pitches as the basis of a musical composition. The terms 12-tone music and serialism, though not entirely synonymous, are often used interchangeably. The serial method was worked out by Arnold Schoenberg in the years 1916–23, though another serial method was being devised simultaneously by Josef Matthias Hauer. To Schoenberg, it represented the culmination of the growth of chromaticism in the late 19th and early 20th century. In an attempt to erase the system of tonality, which he regarded as outworn but which frequently asserted itself even in the music of composers who desired to transcend it, Schoenberg's original method stipulated (among several other requirements) that no note could be repeated before all 11 other notes of the chromatic scale had been used. Serialism, a broader term than 12-tone music, can be applied to the use of fewer than 12 tones. Total serialism, a concept that arose in the late 1940s, attempts to organize not only the 12 pitches but also other elements such as rhythm, dynamics, register, and instrumentation into ordered sets.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on serialism, visit Britannica.com.