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  Tonal music is music in which the listener can constantly relate the harmonies he or she hears to a tonal centre (in the case of many 18th- and 19th-century works, to a specific key, so that a piece can be said to be, for example, ‘in C’ or ‘in G sharp minor’). In atonal music, this feeling of harmonic nucleus is replaced by that of a continuum of sound, in which each individual harmony is equal with all the others. Thus, although the word ‘atonal’ was once (wrongly) applied exclusively to twelve-note music, it can describe any music in which a feeling of harmonic vagueness, of ebb and flow, predominates. This would include not only works by such 20th-century composers as Olivier Messiaen, Michael Tippett or Edgard Varèse, but earlier pieces ranging from Bach\'s fugues to Wagner\'s Tristan and Isolde or Debussy\'s piano preludes. By the same token, much 20th-century music that was once regarded as ‘atonal’, for example Bartók\'s, can now clearly be heard to have a strong tonal drive, based on the departure from and return to the harmonies of a single, all-embracing ‘key’. KMcL  



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