Historic Insights

Modern Music, Past and Present

All Music was Modern at Some Point

Chances are you have heard a piece of music that was written in the twentieth or even the twenty-first century and that you just didn’t like. You didn’t understand it at all. It didn’t have a tune, it didn’t have a “beat,” it sounded terribly discordant, it didn’t seem to go anywhere, it was, well, … modern!

Not Like Mozart

The music of Alexina Louie, Claude Vivier and other “moderns” is obviously not like the music of Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. It doesn’t even resemble that of twentieth-century composers like Stravinsky or Bartók. It lacks the “tunes” we like to hum or the beat we like to tap our feet to. Does that mean it’s not as good? Not necessarily. It often takes time for our ears to catch up to what composers are trying to express in their music. Modes and means of artistic expression are constantly changing. When Mozart incorporated passages of special high drama into his opera Don Giovanni, many Viennese in the audience found this disturbing. They were accustomed to light, frivolous situations devoid of real emotional involvement. Mozart shook them up a bit. Many of Beethoven’s masterpieces that form the core of the repertory today were dismissed as “too modern” for his contemporaries. When Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, a beloved work today, was first heard, one eminent critic informed his readers that it was “strange, wild, ultra-modern” and asked “could we ever learn to love such music?” The same composer’s Violin Concerto was dismissed as “music that stinks to the ear.”


A bewildering number of isms have been invented to describe different kinds of twentieth century music: expressionism, neoclassicism, primitivism, serialism, futurism, neo-romanticism, minimalism - and even those don't begin to cover it all. So really, it seems the foremost feature of modern music might be the enormous diversity of it all!

Aural Architecture

Yet, if forced to come up with a single defining quality of music in the twentieth century, we might point to the desire of many composers (there are always exceptions, of course – Rachmaninoff, for example) to turn their backs on emotional expression and instead to manipulate sound as abstract material. Rhythm, harmony, and sometimes even melody still play their roles, but now form, structure, shape and texture take precedence - music as aural architecture, if you like. Composers even wrote pieces with titles like Lines and Points, Structures, Sonic Contours or Density 21.5.

Some characteristics of modern music are highly advanced harmony, much use of polyrhythms, vastly increased use of percussion instruments, wildly erratic melodic lines (or no lines at all), lack of a tonal center (for example, C major or A minor), barbaric force, highly unusual groups of instruments, and the depiction of bizarre, even mind-boggling scenarios.

Survival of the Few

You might enjoy browsing through an anthology of this kind of criticism called Lexicon of Musical Invective, collected by Nicolas Slonimsky, in which dozens of our most cherished musical compositions were vilified when they were new. What’s important to remember here is that all music was modern once. Only time can tell if a particular composition will enter the pantheon of acclaimed masterpieces. Very few do. In fact, only a tiny fraction of the music written at any given time is really good, and even less enters the popular repertory. The annals of music history are littered with the names of hundreds, even thousands of composers whose entire output is eminently forgettable and justly forgotten. Even the great masters - Mozart, Beethoven and the like - had their off-days when they wrote music of mediocre quality.

New Paths

The history of music is reflected in the constant search for new ways of organizing sound. In a sense, what many composers focused on in the twentieth century was a reaction to the hyper-expressive romanticism of the nineteenth century, which in turn was a reaction to the emphasis on form and structure of the eighteenth century, which in turn …. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose! What direction will music take in the twenty-first century? That’s for you to discover!

Robert Markow