Harmony is the musical element that truly distinguishes Western music from other kinds of music around the world. This is the vertical aspect of music that results when two or more pitches are heard simultaneously. The type of harmony that has formed the basis for most music over the past few centuries is known as tonal harmony. Tonal harmony involves having a tonal center, using major and minor scales, and using tertian chords that are related to one another and to the tonal center in various ways.

There was a period of time when tonal harmony and its principles were practically the sole basis for all compositions of Western music. This era, known as the common practice period, took place roughly from 1650 to about 1900. Once the twentieth century began, serious composers developed a very strong interest in post-tonal harmony. Tonal harmony still existed during the twentieth century, and it still widely exists today. However, the reason the common practice period ended around 1900 is because that is when composers began to look for different and newer ways to make their compositions stand out, and many did this through the use of post-tonal harmony.

The traditional tonal system was stretched to its limits for over two centuries, and that is when composers began to look for alternative ways to go about composing and organizing their music. They attempted to modify many of the basic elements of music, such as scales, chord structures, harmonic succession, and texture. Post-tonal music refers to music composed since the general decline of tonal harmony that does not follow traditional tonal conventions. It also collectively refers to the various approaches and styles that have been adopted since the common practice period.

There was an important art movement that was already taking place as tonal harmony began to decline. This movement is known as Impressionism, which was a term that applied to a style of painting that developed in the late nineteenth century. Artists of this movement sought to evoke certain moods and atmospheres, and they used light and color in ways that were considered nontraditional. Once the nineteenth century was coming to an end, composers became influenced by the concept of impressionism, and they became fascinated with the idea of depicting colors and images through sound. These composers realized that the best way to do this would be to turn away from the more formal procedures of tonal harmony.

Two of the most influential and celebrated composers of Impressionist music are Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). These two composers, best known for their piano works, were craftsmen that were able to compose pieces of music that were truly able to convey certain moods and depict specific images. While most of their compositions have a tinge of tonality, these works still manage to break away from the traditional principles of tonal and functional harmony. The harmonic approaches of these two composers are what enabled them to portray all sorts of colors and images, and their harmonic choices are what made them two of the most distinctive composers of post-tonal and Impressionist music.

To the next generation of musical theorists, Lennon J. Ashton


Music theory, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, analysis, Impressionism, Twentieth Century, Post-Tonal Music

Document Type


Year of Completion



Bachelor Of Music in Music Education


Professor Stephanie Watt

Academic Department