Guidelines for Serial (Pantonal) Composition    

 copyright © 1997 by Larry Solomon  


Since twelve tone composition uses all 12 pcs constantly, pitch and interval content cannot be its primary means of organization. Rather, it is based on interval order (actually dic order). Its perception is based on the ability to hear interval order much more than interval content.

Originally, twelve-note sets were used as a complete theme or as a group of motives, but became progressively more abstracted, until Schoenberg conceived of it as the structural order behind a total composition.

Today even twelve-ness and the non-repetition of tones cease to have the fundamental importance they were once thought to have. A row may be grouped into trichords, tetrachords, etc. which within themselves are unordered but maintain the overall succession of the groups.

In notation, no key signature is used, only accidentals. Notes without accidentals are assumed to be natural. However, naturals need be used to cancel previous accidentals in the same measure. Sharps and flats should be placed before every note needing them. They are equivalent in pantonal composition. Intervals should be notated in a way that is most familiar in tonal contexts for purposes of readability. Double sharps and flats should not be used.

Compositional Surface

One important way that serial pantonal composition differs from traditional tonal composition is that in the latter many of the organizational aspects are not chosen by the composer, but are given; e.g. tertian chords, keys, modes, scales, tonic-dominant, root movement, etc. The composer simply constructs the surface of a composition. But in pantonal composition almost all the aspects of organization must be created by the composer.


Rhythm is made up of temporal intervals and is perceived as the distance between attacks, rather than as durations. Rhythm in pantonal serial composition often features syncopation and aperiodicity. The more rhythmic regularity there is the more pitch centric the music becomes. Regular rhythms tend to create strong and weak beat patterns that set up tonal hierarchies. Thus, although the use of regular rhythms is not uncommon, one should be aware of the tonal implications.


Melodic lines need not be confined to a single instrument, but may employ klangfarbenmelodie. Variation is used more than literal repetition and sequence. Wide registral range and large leaps are common in pantonal music, blurring the distinction between melody and accompaniment, and creating a network of intersecting, overlapping lines. Slower tempi have a more confined range, however. Antecedent-consequent phrases are still useful and should be employed.

Rhythmic and registral balance should be maintained between statements, especially between antecedent/consequent phrases, but phrases are often not repeated four measure lengths, hence assymetry prevails. Pcs of the row may be distributed to create melody with accompaniment. Melodic pcs can be combined with "vertical" pcs to support a harmonic unity (see harmony). Try to distribute row pcs so that interval order is most easily heard.


Various schemes have been developed to maintain harmonic unity in pantonal music. A different plan may be developed for every composition. A common scheme is to choose a row that partitions into trichords, tetrachords, etc, where these subsets are related nonlinear sets and then using them as chords.

Avoid traditional triads and tertian chords as well as traditional cadence types. Try to distribute row pcs so that interval order is most easily heard. In forming chords, for example, the temporal order of pcs may be translated into a vertical order from bottom to top or vice versa.

Combinatoriality is another means of achieving harmonic unity in pantonal composition.


Traditional formal principles are used in pantonal music, including all the traditional forms, such as rondo, ternary, binary, sonata, fugue, canon, passacaglia, and theme & variations.

Texture and Other Considerations

Texture in pantonal music is polyphonic and contrapuntal and is mainly of a transparent (not thick) variety. Variation of dynamics, articulation, and tempi is more common in pantonal composition than in tonal music. 

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