Six-element row of rhythmic values used in Variazioni canoniche by Luigi Nono (Whittall 2008, 165)

In music, serialism is a method of composition using series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements. Serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, though some of his contemporaries were also working to establish serialism as a form of post-tonal thinking. Twelve-tone technique orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, forming a row or series and providing a unifying basis for a composition's melody, harmony, structural progressions, and variations. Other types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions (often called "parameters"), such as duration, dynamics, and timbre.

The idea of serialism is also applied in various ways in the visual arts, design, and architecture (Bandur 2001, 5, 12, 74; Gerstner 1964, passim), and the musical concept has also been adopted in literature (Collot 2008, 81; Leray 2008, 217–19; Waelti-Walters 1992, 37, 64, 81, 95).

Integral serialism or total serialism is the use of series for aspects such as duration, dynamics, and register as well as pitch (Whittall 2008, 273). Other terms, used especially in Europe to distinguish post–World War II serial music from twelve-tone music and its American extensions, are general serialism and multiple serialism (Grant 2001, 5–6).

Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Milton Babbitt, Elisabeth Lutyens, Charles Wuorinen and Jean Barraqué used serial techniques of one sort or another in most of their music. Other composers such as Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, Benjamin Britten, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Walter Piston, Ned Rorem, Alfred Schnittke, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Igor Stravinsky used serialism only for some of their compositions or only for some sections of pieces, as did some jazz composers such as Yusef Lateef and Bill Evans.

Basic definitions

Serialism is a method (Griffiths 2001, 116), "highly specialized technique" (Wörner 1973, 196), or "way" (Whittall 2008, 1) of composition. It may also be considered, "a philosophy of life (Weltanschauung), a way of relating the human mind to the world and creating a completeness when dealing with a subject" (Bandur 2001, 5).

However, serialism is not by itself a system of composition, nor is it a style. Neither is pitch serialism necessarily incompatible with tonality, though it is most often used as a means of composing atonal music (Griffiths 2001, 116).

"Serial music" is a problematic term because it is used differently in different languages and especially because, shortly after its coinage in French, it underwent essential alterations during its transmission to German (Frisius 1998, 1327). The use of the word "serial" in connection with music was first introduced in French by René Leibowitz (1947), and immediately afterward by Humphrey Searle in English, as an alternative translation of the German Zwölftontechnik twelve-tone technique or Reihenmusik (row music); it was independently introduced by Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen into German in 1955 as serielle Musik, with a different meaning (Frisius 1998, 1327), translated into English also as "serial music".

Twelve-tone serialism

Serialism of the first type is most specifically defined as the structural principle according to which a recurring series of ordered elements (normally a set—or row—of pitches or pitch classes) are used in order or manipulated in particular ways to give a piece unity. Serialism is often broadly applied to all music written in what Arnold Schoenberg called "The Method of Composing with Twelve Notes related only to one another" (Schoenberg 1975, 218; Anon. n.d.), or dodecaphony, and methods that evolved from his methods. It is sometimes used more specifically to apply only to music where at least one element other than pitch is subjected to being treated as a row or series. In such usages post-Webernian serialism will be used to denote works that extend serial techniques to other elements of music. Other terms used to make the distinction are twelve-note serialism for the former and integral serialism for the latter.

A row may be assembled pre-compositionally (perhaps to embody particular intervallic or symmetrical properties), or it may be derived from a spontaneously invented thematic or motivic idea. The structure of the row, however, does not in itself define the structure of a composition, which requires development of a comprehensive strategy. The choice of available strategies will of course depend on the relationships contained in a row class, and rows may be constructed with an eye to producing the relationships needed to form desired strategies (Mead 1985, 129–30).

The basic set may have additional restrictions, such as the requirement that it use each interval only once.

Non-twelve-tone serialism

The series is not an order of succession, but indeed a hierarchy—which may be independent of this order of succession. (Boulez 1954,[page needed], translated in Griffiths 1978, 37)

Rules of analysis derived from twelve-tone theory do not apply to serialism of the second type: "in particular the ideas, one, that the series is an intervallic sequence, and two, that the rules are consistent" (Maconie 2005, 119). Stockhausen, for example, in early serial compositions such as Kreuzspiel and Formel, "advances in unit sections within which a preordained set of pitches is repeatedly reconfigured ... The composer's model for the distributive serial process corresponds to a development of the Zwölftonspiel of Josef Matthias Hauer" (Maconie 2005, 56), and Goeyvaerts, in such a work as Nummer 4,

provides a classic illustration of the distributive function of seriality: 4 times an equal number of elements of equal duration within an equal global time is distributed in the most equable way, unequally with regard to one another, over the temporal space: from the greatest possible coïncidence to the greatest possible dispersion. This provides an exemplary demonstration of that logical principle of seriality: every situation must occur once and only once. (Sabbe 1977, 114)

For Henri Pousseur, after an initial period working with twelve-tone technique in works like Sept Versets (1950) and Trois Chants sacrés (1951), serialism

evolved away from this bond in Symphonies pour quinze Solistes [1954–55] and in the Quintette [à la mémoire d’Anton Webern, 1955], and from around the time of Impromptu [1955] encounters whole new dimensions of application and new functions.

The twelve-tone series loses its imperative function as a prohibiting, regulating, and patterning authority; its working-out is abandoned through its own constant-frequent presence: all 66 intervallic relations among the 12 pitches being virtually present. Prohibited intervals, like the octave, and prohibited successional relations, such as premature note repetitions, frequently occur, although obscured in the dense contexture. The number twelve no longer plays any governing, defining rôle; the pitch constellations no longer hold to the limitation determined by their formation. The dodecaphonic series loses its significance as a concrete model of shape (or a well-defined collection of concrete shapes) is played out. And the chromatic total remains active only, and provisionally, as a general reference. (Sabbe 1977, 264)

In the 1960s Pousseur took this a step further, applying a consistent set of predefined transformations to pre-existent music. One example is the large orchestral work Couleurs croisées (Crossed Colours, 1967), which performs these transformations on the protest song "We Shall Overcome", thereby creating a succession of different situations that are sometimes chromatic and dissonant and at other times diatonic and consonant (Locanto 2010, 157). In his opera Votre Faust (Your Faust, 1960–68) Pousseur used a large number of different quotations, themselves arranged into a "scale" for serial treatment, so as to bring coherence and order to the work. This "generalised" serialism (in the strongest possible sense) aims not to exclude any musical phenomena, no matter how heterogenous, in order "to control the effects of tonal determinism, dialectize its causal functions, and overcome any academic prohibitions, especially the fixing of an anti-grammar meant to replace some previous one" (Bosseur 1989, 60–61).

At about the same time, Stockhausen began using serial methods to integrate a variety of musical sources from recorded examples of folk and traditional music from around the world in his electronic composition Telemusik (1966), and from national anthems in Hymnen (1966–67). He extended this serial "polyphony of styles" in a series of "process-plan" works in the late 1960s, as well as later in portions of Licht, the cycle of seven operas he composed between 1977 and 2003 (Kohl 2002, 97 et passim).

Other Languages
asturianu: Serialismo
čeština: Serialismus
dansk: Serialisme
español: Serialismo
Esperanto: Seria muziko
euskara: Serialismo
فارسی: سریالیسم
한국어: 음렬주의
italiano: Serialismo
עברית: סריאליזם
Latina: Serialismus
Limburgs: Serialisme
македонски: Серијализам
Nederlands: Serialisme
norsk: Serialisme
polski: Serializm
português: Serialismo
русский: Сериализм
Simple English: Serialism
svenska: Seriell musik
українська: Серіалізм
中文: 序列主义