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Schoenberg Doesn't Suck: Serialism Demystified

How did I miss this before today? Well, thanks to the sublime Maria Popova and her site Brain Pickings, I am now among the millions of folks who have encountered the equally sublime Vi Hart on YouTube. The self-described "mathemusician" (and occasional cook) explains everything from Fibonacci numbers to the science of sound. In her newest upload, she breaks down what twelve-tone serialism is all about, using Stravinsky's setting of Edward Lear's poem "The Owl and the Pussycat" as her point of zany departure.

Now, what Hart doesn't say is that Stravinsky's experiments with dodecaphony were fairly short-lived — I'm not sure why she starts out with his music rather than, say, Arnold Schoenberg, the father of serialism (except maybe that way more people have heard of Stravinsky?), though she does name-check him along with Berg, Webern, Babbitt, Berio and company. (Yet she does meander to imagining zombie Schoenberg about halfway through.)

And what she also does, magnificently, is to put in plain and enjoyable terms what exactly all these composers were up to: "It's a tool for breaking free of old musical habits ... to get your brain to stop following the same, well-worn neural pathways and think something you haven't thought before."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.