On Musical Material: Serialism and “Materialdenken”


Writings about the material of music have been a part of European music theory for nearly 2000 years, but they were especially prominent in theoretical writings that accompanied the serial music of the 1950s and 60s. In their efforts to dismantle traditional compositional techniques and build a new music from the most basic elements, many postwar composers and theorists seized upon the concept of musical material and invested it with the intellectual concerns of their time. Theories of musical material are, therefore, both essential to an philosophical content. The value of such theories can be found in what they tell us about the period and what they impel us to ask further.

Examinations and descriptions of the material of music have been part of music theory for nearly two thousand years, since the writings of Aristides Quintilianus.[1] But the engagement with this topic was never more prevalent and urgent than in the decades following the Second World War. Carl Dahlhaus characterized those decades, the 1950s and 60s in Central Europe, as a period of “Materialdenken”: a period in which thinking about material defined musical discourse.[2] His characterization refers specifically to the theory and practice of serial music, but serial music enjoyed an aesthetic prestige that was perhaps greater than any other form of composition at the time.[3] More than merely a technique, serialism was the expression of a world-view, one that reflected the ideals of the postwar period and was preserved as the technique developed and changed. Consequently, although serialism was only one part of an extremely rich and diverse postwar musical culture, it has received a disproportionately large amount of historiographical attention; its principles continue to influence composition today.

What is “serialism”? The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. Because the term has been applied differently in different languages and by different theorists and composers, its meaning cannot be generally formulated. Central European usage generally follows the German term “serielle Musik,” which refers exclusively to compositional techniques developed in the 1950s and 60s that consciously distinguished themselves from Schoenbergian dodecaphony by extending the structural principle of a pitch row to other elements such as duration, intensity, and timbre. In English (as in French), “serial music” (“musique serielle”) is used much more broadly to refer to any music that uses the serial principle, regardless of whether this principle is applied only to pitch, as in the music of Arnold Schoenberg, or universally.[4] The broader application of the term preserves the original meaning of “musique serielle,” which was used initially by René Leibowitz in 1947 in writings on the twelve-tone method of Schoenberg and his students.[5] As the concept of serial music was later adopted by Pierre Boulez (who had studied with Leibowitz) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (who befriended Boulez) in the early 1950s, it was adapted to refer also to the structuring of compositional elements other than pitch. The German concept of “serielle Musik” became widely established shortly thereafter, largely through the publication of the journal die Reihe: Information über serielle Musik, to which Stockhausen and Boulez were significant contributors.[6]

My use of the term “serialism” in this essay refers to the more specific meaning of the word common to German-language scholarship. But although I am primarily concerned with this more limited repertory and theory, it would be impossible and incorrect to consider this independently of Schoenbergian dodecaphony. Serial composers of the 1950s and 60s were dependent upon an idea of history in which serialism was seen as a necessary development from dodecaphony; the serialists’ critique of twelve-tone music determined their own compositional ideals, and an examination of serial theory therefore requires some awareness of its relation to dodecaphonic theory.[7] Additionally, serial composers’ theoretical interest in musical material is greatly indebted to Theodor W. Adorno’s writings on the topic and his interpretation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. Because theories of material in European serialism have their roots in Adorno’s writings on Schoenberg, any study of the former must note also the latter.

The fact that Schoenberg had been condemned by the Nazis made him particularly appealing to the composers who would develop serial techniques after the war. Indeed, one of the factors that defined postwar serial music, and its interest in the concept of musical material, was the contemporaneous political situation in Europe. Particularly in Germany, where the physical record of the country’s history had been reduced to rubble and the intellectual legacy perverted by the National Socialists, there was a desire for a new beginning. This desire initiated a search for artistic techniques that carried no traces of the past, and the new music that developed in the 1950s was seen to correspond to a new world, which arose from the ashes of the recent war. As composers worked to purge from music anything that had associations with the past, they focused on isolated components of sound, which they considered its basic material. According to Gottfried Michael Koenig, this focus brought about “the birth of what we today call musical material”: beginning again from the most basic elements, “composers attempted to get to the very basis of the acoustic event, to the material substrate of music; they wanted to know exactly from what music, and sound itself, is constituted.”[8]

The attempt to escape the past and begin a new motivated what has been called by some scholars a “paradigm shift” in the years around 1950, in which older styles, such as Neoclassicism, were denigrated as twelve-tone and serial techniques were adopted.[9] Coincident with this new beginning was a perceived loss, or conscious abandonment, of existing musical norms and practices. As in other historical periods where older compositional premises had been consciously abandoned, the need to lay the foundations for new practices spurred the growth of music theory,[10] and the great amount of theoretical writing generated by composers in this period attests to the desire for a new conceptual framework. According to Gianmario Borio, in the 1950s “very nearly every new composition gave rise to reflection about fundamental aspects of music [such as] tone, rhythm, time, structure, form, [and] polyphony.”[11] The word “material” should be added to this list, for not only was it widely used, it also functioned as a synonym for the word “parameter,” which referred to the most fundamental aspects of music.

The word “parameter” was adopted by postwar composers from the vocabulary used in electronic music studios, and electro-acoustic research essentially shaped serial technique and theories of material. The technology used for this research enabled sound events to be analyzed —to be literally “broken up”—into component parts, or parameters, such as pitch, duration, intensity, and timbre. These components, identified specifically as the “material” of compositions and structured initially by serial principles, were thought to be purified of history and representative of the nature of sound itself. The search for sounds that were novel and uncorrupted by historical associations led to a search for new material, and the use of ever new compositional material provided, it was thought, concrete evidence of progress.

The belief in progress and the expanding search for new acoustic phenomena were identified by Dahlhaus as essential characteristics of “Materialdenken.”[12] Conceptions of historical progress were enlisted to support other aspects of the discourse as well: they were used to justify not only the material of serial composition but serial technique itself. In the construction of history that underpinned new music in the 1950s, serialism was seen as a consequential historical development from, and improvement upon, dodecaphony.[13] Unlike dodecaphonic composition, which was criticized for combining the new twelve-tone method of pitch organization with older formal types and rhythmic gestures,[14] serialism, it was thought, enabled a unified conception of all musical components—pitch, duration, intensity, timbre, and even form could be structured according to the single principle of the series. The step from dodecaphony to serialism seemed both logical and necessary, and it seemed to effect the “agreement of the laws of form with the conditions of the material” that Stockhausen believed ensured a compositional approach that was “materialgerecht” or “appropriate for the material.”[15] We should not believe that Stockhausen’s views were correct, of course; nor should we believe the idea of progress promoted by serial composers. But we should note the historical significance these ideas had at the time.

Another essential characteristic of “Materialdenken,” according to Dahlhaus, was a commitment to Adorno’s aesthetic theory, for which the concept of musical material is central.[16] The reception of Adorno’s ideas triggered the widespread theoretical engagement with material in the 1950s and beyond,[17] though much of this discourse strayed from his premises. Conceptual differences in other theories provoked sharp critiques from Adorno, who charged that serial composers and theorists had ignored the historical essence of musical material and falsely believed in a naturally occurring materia prima. According to Adorno, musical material “is not natural material [Naturmaterial] even if it appears so to artists; rather, it is thoroughly historical [geschichtlich durch und durch].”[18] Such differences notwithstanding, no philosopher was more widely read by or had more influence upon serial composers than Adorno; and, conversely, Adorno’s engagement with postwar music was a significant part of his activities as one of the most visible intellectuals in Europe in this period.

Adorno’s writings on material are noteworthy for reasons that go beyond their substantial influence. The theoretical complexity and multi-disciplinary breadth that shape his conception of material far exceed any prior treatment of the topic.[19] Unlike Quintilianus 2000 years before him, and unlike most of the thinkers in the intervening two millenia, Adorno argued that musical material was not given by nature, but by history. Ironically, the serial composers and theorists who were so influenced by Adorno’s writings reverted to the idea of musical material as something given by nature. But this is precisely what makes this topic so interesting and worthy of study: it harbors numerous contradictions among the richness of its historical, cultural, and philosophical contexts. Although it is a key to helping us better understand the music and ideas of the 1950s and 60s, it does not provide simple explanations or a comprehensive picture. It is merely one key with which we can open one of countless doors. As such, this key also opens for us the benefit of historical study, a benefit that is not to be found in unequivocal answers or eternal truths but in the further exploration and thinking that arises from our investigations. The work of historians is not only about answering questions, but also—and more importantly—it is about stimulating further questions.


[1] For a study of Quintilianus’s use of the term, see Albrecht Riethmüller, “The Matter of Music is Sound and Body-Motion,” in Materialities of Communication, ed. H.U. Gumbrecht and K.L. Pfeiffer, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, 147-156. A discussion of theories of material in German music scholarship from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries can be found in Peter Cahn, “Zu einigen Aspekten des Materialdenkens in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts,” Hindemith-Jahrbuch 1980/IX, Mainz, 1982, 193-205.

[2] Two essays in particular develop this idea: Carl Dahlhaus, “Die Krise des Experiments,” Komponieren Heute (Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Neue Musik und Musikerziehung 23), Mainz, 1983, 80-94; and Carl Dahlhaus, “A rejection of material thinking?,” Schoenberg and the New Music, trans. Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 274-287, the original appears as, “Abkehr vom Materialdenken?,” Algorithmus, Klang, Natur: Abkehr vom Materialdenken? (Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik 19), ed. Friedrich Hommel, Mainz: Schott, 1984, 45-55.

[3] Dahlhaus has written that serialism was seen, by both advocates and detractors, as not only the most advanced technique in the 1950s, but also the expression of the spirit of the age; see Dahlhaus, “Die Krise des Experiments,” 80. For another study of this period, see Anne C. Shreffler, “Ein ‘neues Bild der Musik’: Der Paradigmenwechsel nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg,” Klassizistische Moderne: Eine Begleitpublikation zur Konzertreihe in Rahmen der Veranstaltungen “10 Jahre Paul Sacher Stiftung,” ed. Felix Meyer, Winterthur, 1996, 187-197.

[4] Hermann Danuser, Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts (Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft 7), Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 1984, 299. For French usage, which is not discussed by Danuser, see Christoph von Blumröder, “Serielle Musik,” Terminologie der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert (Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie, Sonderband I), ed. Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995, 396-411.

[5] Blumröder, “Serielle Musik,” 396.

[6] Blumröder, “Serielle Musik,” 397-404.

[7] For a detailed study of these ideas see: Marcus Zagorski, “Material and History in the Aesthetics of ‘serielle Musik’,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134/2 (2009), 271-317.

[8] “Die Komponisten waren auf sich allein gestellt, sie mußten etwas finden, was ihrer musikalischen Phantasie technisch entsprach. Das war gewissermaßen die Geburtstunde dessen, was wir heute musikalisches Material nennen. Die Komponisten versuchten, dem akustischen Ereignis, dem materialen Substrat der Musik, auf den Grund zu gehen; sie wollten genau wissen, woraus Musik, woraus die Klänge bestehen—in der Hoffnung, daß, wenn man die einzelnen Bestandteile in der Hand hat, auch ein Weg sich zeigen werde, diese Bestandteile zu sinnvollen Ordnungen zusammenzusetzen.” Gottfried Michael Koenig, “Das musikalsiche Material – Ein Begriff und seine Fragwürdigkeit,” Ästhetische Praxis. Texte zur Musik 2, Saarbrücken, 1992, 143-153, here 149-150.

[9] The idea of such a “paradigm shift” is discussed in Shreffler, “Paradigmenwechsel.”

[10] Dahlhaus makes this observation about the growth of music theory in “Die Krise des Experiments,” 81.

[11] “In der fünfziger Jahren gibt beinahe jede neue Komposition Anlaß zur Reflexion über grundlegende Aspekte der Musik (Klang, Rhythmus, Zeit, Struktur, Form, Polyphonie).” Gianmario Borio, “Wege des ästhetischen Diskurses,” Im Zenit der Moderne: Die Internationalen Ferienkurse für neue Musik Darmstadt 1946-1966, eds. Gianmario Borio and Hermann Danuser, Freiburg: Rombach, 1997, vol. 1, 427-469, here 432.

[12] See Dahlhaus, “Die Krise des Experiments,” 82.

[13] Carl Dahlhaus, “Neue Musik und Wissenschaft,” Wissenschaftliche und nichtwissenschaftliche Rationalität: Ein deutsch-französisches Kolloquium, ed. Kurt Hübner and Jules Vuillemin, Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1983, 107-118, here 109.

[14] Pierre Boulez’s essay, “Schoenberg is Dead,” is perhaps the most infamous expression of this view. See Pierre Boulez, “Schoenberg is Dead,” Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, trans. Stephen Walsh, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, 209-214.

[15] “Materialgerecht denken: Übereinstimmung der Formgesetze mit den Bedingungen des Materials.”  Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Arbeitsbericht 1952/53: Orientierung,” Texte, vol. 1: Zur elektronischen und instrumentalen Musik, ed. Dieter Schnebel, Cologne: DuMont, 1963, 32-38, here 32.

[16] See Dahlhaus, “Die Krise des Experiments,” 82.

[17] Gianmario Borio, “Die Positionen Adornos zur musikalischen Avantgarde zwischen 1954 und 1966,” Adorno in seinen musikalischen Schriften (Musik im Diskurs vol. 2), ed. Brunhilde Sonntag, Regensburg: Bosse, 1987, 163-179, here 172. See also Marcus Zgorski, “‘Nach dem Weltuntergang’: Adorno’s Engagement with Postwar Music,” Journal of Musicology 22/4 (2005), 680-701.

[18] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 148. For the original see Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, in Gesammelte Schriften 7, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970, 223.

[19] Detailed examinations of Adorno’s theory of musical material can be found in Zagorski, “Nach dem Weltuntergang,” and Zagorski “Material and History.”