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Periods of European art music
Medieval   (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1730–1820)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Modern and contemporary
20th-century (1900–2000)
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21st-century (2000–present)

Modernism in music is characterized by a desire for or belief in progress and science, surrealism, anti-romanticism, political advocacy, general intellectualism, and/or a breaking with the past or common practiceEzra Pound's modernist slogan, "Make it new," as applied to music.


Defining musical modernism

Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus restricted his definition of musical modernism to progressive music in the period 1890-1910:

The year 1890...lends itself as an obvious point of historical discontinuity....The "breakthrough" Mahler, Strauss and Debussy implying a profound historical transformation....If we were to search for a name to convey the breakaway mood of the 1890s (a mood symbolized musically by the opening bars of Strauss's Don Juan) but without imposing a fictitious unity of style on the age, we could do worse than revert to [the] term "modernism" extending (with some latitude) from the 1890 to the beginnings of our own twentieth-century modern music in 1910....The label "late romanticism" a terminological blunder of the first order and ought to be abandoned forthwith. It is absurd to yoke Strauss, Mahler, and the young Schoenberg, composers who represent modernism in the minds of their turn-of-the-century contemporaries, with the self-proclaimed anti-modernist Pfitzner, calling them all "late romantics" in order to supply a veneer of internal unity to an age fraught with stylistic contradictions and conflicts. (Dahlhaus 1989, 334)

Leon Botstein, on the other hand, asserts that musical modernism is characterized by "a conception of modernity dominated by the progress of science, technology and industry, and by positivism, mechanization, urbanization, mass culture and nationalism", an aesthetic reaction to which "reflected not only enthusiasm but ambivalence and anxiety" (Botstein 2007).

Other writers regard the period of musical modernism as extending from about 1890 to only 1930, and apply the term "postmodernism" to the period after that year (Karolyi 1994, 135; Meyer 1994, 331–32).

Still other writers assert that modernism is not attached to any historical period, but rather is "an attitude of the composer; a living construct that can evolve with the times" (McHard 2008, 14).

Examples of modernism in music

  • Sound based composition

In the 1910s, futurists such as Luigi Russolo looked to a future of music liberated to the point of being able to use any sound, even "noises" such as factory and mechanical sounds (Russolo, "The Art of Noises"), while Edgard Varèse created his Poème électronique specifically for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair with 400 speakers, designed by Le Corbusier with the assistance of Iannis Xenakis (EMF Institute article "Poème électronique").

  • Extended techniques and sounds

John Cage and Lou Harrison wrote works in the late 1940s for percussion orchestra. Harrison later wrote for and built gamelans, while Cage popularized extended techniques on the piano in his prepared piano pieces, starting in 1938 (Stephen Drury, "In a Landscape") Starting in the early 1920s, Harry Partch built his own ensemble of instruments, mostly percussion and string instruments, to allow the performance of his theatrical ("corporeal") justly tuned microtonal music (Partch biography page at

  • Expansion on/abandonment of tonality

Atonality, the twelve tone technique, polytonality, tone clusters, dissonant counterpoint, and serialism.

History of modernism in music


Alternative categorizations

Orlando Gibbons' The Cries of London, Joseph Haydn's The Creation, and many romantic works attempt maximal comprehensiveness and depth, such as Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Semantic specificity has always existed, such as in Clément Janequin's Le chant des oiseaux (birds), Alessandro Poglietti's Rossignolo (nightingale), Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (barking dog), Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (birds), or Haydn's The Seasons (frog croaks). Composers have long used semantic density to indicate disorder, while Nicolas Gombert has used four voices singing four simultaneous different antiphons to the Virgin Mary, as would be heard by the omniscient Mary.

Musical modernism's reception and controversy

Stanley Cavell describes the "burden of modernism" as caused by a situation wherein the "procedures and problems it now seems necessary to composers to employ and confront to make a work of art at all themselves insure that their work will not be comprehensible to an audience" (Cavell 1976, 187).

Brian Ferneyhough coined the neologisms "too-muchness" and "too-littleness" to describe the poles between which writings about aesthetic perception tend to swing (Ferneyhough 1995, 117).

See also


  • Albright, Daniel. 2000. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012530 (cloth) ISBN 0226012549 (pbk)
  • Albright, Daniel. 2004. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  • Ashby, Arved. 2004. "Modernism Goes to the Movies". In The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology, edited by Arved Ashby, 345-86. Eastman Studies in Music. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Botstein, Leon. "Modernism". Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. <> (subscription access)
  • Cavell, Stanley. 1976. "Music Discomposed", in his Must We Mean What We Say?. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521290481 (cloth), ISBN 0521211166 (pbk). Updated edition, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521821886 (cloth), ISBN 0521529190 (pbk). Cited in The Pleasure of Modernist Music, edited by, Arved Ashby, 146 n13. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1989. Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Ferneyhough, Brian. 1995. Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop. New York: Routledge. ISBN 3718655772
  • Karolyi, Otto. 1994. Modern British Music: The Second British Musical Renaissance—From Elgar to P. Maxwell Davies. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8386-3532-6
  • McHard, James L. 2008. The Future of Modern Music: A Philosophical Exploration of Modernist Music in the 20th Century and Beyond, 3rd edition. Livonia, Michigan: Iconic Press ISBN 978-0977819515
  • Meyer, Leonard B. 1994. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, second edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-52143-5

Further reading

  • Bernstein, David W., John Rockwell, and Johannes Goebel. 2008. The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-garde. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520248922 (cloth) ISBN 9780520256170 (pbk.)
  • Griffiths, Paul. 1981. Modern Music: The Avant Garde since 1945. New York: George Braziller. ISBN 0807610186 (pbk.)
  • Smith Brindle, Reginald. 1987. The New Music: The Avant-garde Since 1945, second edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193154714 (cloth) ISBN 0193154684 (pbk.)
  • Sitsky, Larry. 2002. Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313296898

External links


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