The ‘Atonal’ Piano Music of Béla Bartók

Helen Kasztelan Chapman
MMus (Uni Melb), Graduate Diploma in Music Performance (VCA), BA Mus (VCA), LMusA, AMusA, MVMTA

As an AMEB piano examiner with over twenty-five years’ experience in teaching, examining and adjudicating in eisteddfods, I have observed that Bartók’s piano music is often overlooked by instrumental studio teachers. I wanted to find out why this is the case as well as look at the technical aspects of teaching this music.


The focus of this paper will be on exploring various approaches to teaching atonal music through a detailed examination of two pieces from Béla Bartók’s Ten Easy Pieces (1908), ‘Painful Wrestling’ and ‘Five-Finger Exercise’. Bartók wrote the Ten Easy Pieces with the specific pedagogical intention of expanding the existing twentieth-century repertory for piano students in Hungary. Within an Australian pedagogical context, they range in difficulty from Grades 2 to 6, with ‘Painful Wrestling’ matching an Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) Grade 2 and ‘Five-Finger Exercise’ Grade 5 standard. Although these pieces are not in the strictest sense ‘atonal’, neither are they truly ‘tonal’. They do, nonetheless, provide a conduit for bridging the gap in understanding between the familiar forms of expression in tonal music with the seemingly disconnected language of post-tonal, non-tonal, and atonal music. When I have taught these pieces, I have observed that children can become overwhelmed when they look at the scores, responding with a glazed expression symptomatic of ‘information overload’. However, I have found that by using an analytical approach to decode musical patterns and paradigms in these pieces at the start of the learning process, I am more likely to achieve a positive learning experience that can enhance learning outcomes for the student.


About My Research

In 2017, I enrolled as a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, to investigate new approaches to analysing the works of Bartók.  My supervisors are Dr Sharon Lierse (Principal Supervisor), Dr Yoshi Budd and Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM.

To collect data for my research, I held a focus group and interviewed fifteen delegates attending the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference (APPC 2017) and conducted two online surveys (one with APPC delegates and the second with members of the VMTA).

Over the past eighteen months I have presented papers and workshops at the (APPC 2017), the Australasian Society for Music Education (ASME 2017) Conference, and the Australian and New Zealand Association for Music Education (ANZARME 2017) Conference. Earlier this year I was invited to speak about my research at the European Association for Music Education in Schools (EAS 2018) Conference in Latvia. I was also one of ten international scholars accepted to take part in the EAS 2018 Doctoral Forum held immediately prior to the Conference. While in Latvia, I was able to exchange ideas and discover more about European perspectives about learning, teaching and performing the piano works of Bartók. I have also given three poster presentations in Latvia and one at the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Currently I am writing up my findings and preparing to speak at the 2018 ANZARME Conference in October.

Biographical Note

I have worked as a member of staff, VCA School of Music for fifteen years.  Here I devised and implemented courses in Keyboard Harmony, Harmonic Resources, Music Analysis and History; supervised Honours and Masters Theses and conducted Aural classes.  I have also lectured and tutored in Analysis and Harmony at Melbourne University.

Thesis Title

The select music of Béla Bartók: An investigation of Australian music teacher’s approaches to teaching Post-Tonal music.

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