Modernism (music)

Modernism (music)
Periods of Western art music
Medieval   (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1750–1830)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Modern and contemporary
20th century (1900–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
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 practice.


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.

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?[citation needed]. 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[citation needed] 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

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Modernism (disambiguation) — Modernism in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. For other uses of the term see: Modernism (Roman Catholicism) Modernism (music) Modern architecture Modern art Modernist literature Modernism/Modernity a peer… …   Wikipedia

  • Modernism — is the generally accepted term to describe the sweeping changes that took place, particularly in the arts and literature, between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War. There is, however, no clear demarcation by… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Modernism: A New Decade — Studio album by The Style Council Released 1998 October 30, 2001 (re release) …   Wikipedia

  • Music of Germany — Genres Electronic Rock (Krautrock) Hip hop Highlife Cabaret Volkstümliche Musik Schlager Heavy metal Opera Specific forms …   Wikipedia

  • Music of Hungary — Music of Hungary: Topics verbunkos táncház csárdás nóta History: (Samples) Genres Classical Folk Hardcor …   Wikipedia

  • Modernism — For other uses of the word, see Modernism (disambiguation). For the period in sociology beginning with the industrialization, see Modernity. Hans Hofmann, The Gate , 1959–1960, collection: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hofmann was renowned not… …   Wikipedia

  • MUSIC — This article is arranged according to the following outline: introduction written sources of direct and circumstantial evidence the material relics and iconography notated sources oral tradition archives and important collections of jewish music… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Music and politics — The connection between music and politics, particularly political expression in music. This expression can use anti establishment or protest themes, including anti war songs, although pro establishment ideas are also used, for example in national …   Wikipedia

  • Modernism/modernity — Infobox Journal discipline = Literature, Various Humanities abbreviation = MOD website = publisher = Johns Hopkins University Press country = USA history = 1994 to present ISSN = 1071 6068 Modernism/modernity is a …   Wikipedia

  • Music of Australia — Arts in Australia Culture of Australia Architecture Art Cinema Comic books Cuisine Dance …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.