Modern Period of Music
1900 to present

The transition from nineteenth-century Romanticism to twentieth-century "Modernism" is, perhaps, as violent an upheaval as was the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Because the speed of twentieth-century innovation in all areas has been so accelerated, music has also moved from one new idea to another with such speed that no previous era can be compared with the diversity and extremes of its expressions. The search for originality on the part of every composer has led to a great variety of expression, reversion to past historical styles, neo-Classicism, neo-Romanticism, serial composition, electronic music, microtonal music, etc. The insistence of originality is so compelling that its end results often appear questionable.

Technology and scientific discovery are probably the basic influences on musical creativity and production. The inventions and methods of rapid sound communication (such as the telephone and telegraph in the nineteenth century) led to further developments in sound transmission. This in turn led to radio, television, computers, the phonograph, and tape recording -- all of which have a vital effect on music. By the middle of the twentieth century, music had become available to almost every human being -- and has become a constant accompaniment at all waking (and even sleeping) hours. It is now possible to have musical performance at every social activity. In the past, even the wealthiest individuals didn't have access to the variety of music we now have at our simple disposal.

Other major discoveries that have influenced music are nuclear physics, space travel, the laser beam -- just to name a few. In the area of social concerns, such events as the Holocaust of World War II, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Women's Liberation and even environmental issues have contributed to musical development. Composers often try to express their own personal concerns and feelings in terms of their art.

Musical recordings and publishing has made music highly available to the public. As a result, recorded musical performances (tape, film, phonograph, and compact disc) have sometimes been erroneously regarded as "replacement" for attendance at live performances. The invention of electronic instruments, such as the synthesizer, began around 1950. This has led to a wide variety of differing sound qualities -- and new tools of the contemporary composer. Even rhythmic complexities completely beyond human capabilities are easy to achieve on electronic instruments. Pre-programmed computers are also being used to compose music.

Finally, even the environment has contributed to music composition. Modern man lives in an environment which is much more acoustically disturbing than that of any past era. Automobiles, tractors, mechanical construction equipment, office machinery, factories -- all have brought about a high level of nervous tension which expects and demands a high level of acoustical stimulus in any type of communication. For example: less than 50 years ago, speakers with enough power to address large audiences are now found within the confines of a small automobile!

Composers today are mindful of the fact that it is through the medium of recorded sound that they have the greatest opportunity to reach their audience. As a result, they compose with recording in mind. But, then, recorded music tends to make it "unnecessary" for the listener to leave the house to attend a concert or opera. There are many enthusiastic music lovers who rarely hear music "in the flesh". Recordings are capable of almost perfect technical performances, since all mistakes can be erased and repaired through editing, cutting and splicing of the original tape. This, of course, is a drawback in the sense that composers and performers come to expect perfect performances of themselves, despite all difficulties in the composition. On the other hand, performers have reached higher levels of technical and interpretive proficiency than ever before.

Function of Music: There is now, more than ever, a commercial aspect in music. Organized concert series and "Seasons of Star Performances" are commonplace. The general public, as a result, has raised its musical taste. Music for motion picture and television are outlets for living composers. But after almost 80 years of motion picture music, there have been very few pieces of music that might be said to be distinguished as artistically noteworthy. Neither incidental motion picture music nor that which is written for a musical picture has distinguished itself. Most audiences, however, are being introduced to a variety of contempory musical styles through the media of motion pictures and television. European and public television devote a large amount of time to the broadcasting of concert and operatic performances.

A great part of the world's population is constantly bombarded with musical sounds from recordings and radio. Such performances are to be heard in the home, the market, the office, at the dentist, the factory, playgrounds, the telephone (when placed on "hold"), sports fields, etc. Even as an antidote, music has come in the medical arena.

Festivals and concerts sponsored by institutions and societies organized expressly for the purpose of presenting the works of contempory composers provide one of the most important opportunities for composers to have their works heard. There has been a continued tendency to employ composers as teachers in musical institutes and universities in all countries. In many instances, such positions are announced as "Composers-in-residence", and parallel the situation in the Baroque and Classical periods when composers were attached to courts. Colleges and universities have such resources, and become a grand climate for experimental composing. In fact, some of the most elaborate resources for electronic music in the United States are to be found in education institutions.

Visual Arts: Duchamp, F.L. Wright, Matisse, Kadinsky, Braque, Picasso, Klee, Rivera, Dali, Orozco, Rouault, Mondrian, Miro, Chagall, Lipchitz, Pollock, Moore.

Literature: G.B. Shaw, Masefield, Mann, Lawrence, Frost, Maugham, Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, France, Malraux, Hemingway, O'Neill, Huxley, Benet, Faulkner, Sandburg, Stein, Steinbeck, Thomas, Williams, Miller, Orwell, Cummings, Auden.

Philosophy: Dewey, Pierce, James, Spengler, Russell, Santanaya, Sartre, Camus.

Prominent Composers: Janacek, Satie, Vaughn Williams, Schoenberg, Ives, Ravel, deFalla, Bloch, Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Varese, Billa-Lobos, Prokofiev, Honneger, Milhaud, Orff, Hindemith, Sessions, Gershwin, Krenek, Copland, Dallapiccola, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Carter, Cage, Britten, Poulenc, Ibert, Reger, Kodaly, Resphigi, Khatchaturian, Kabalevsky, Turina, Piston, Babbitt, Barber, Hovhaness, dello Joio, Persichetti, Gottschalk.

Characteristics of Style: Composers felt it necessary to find new ways to say new things. Musically, this meant that melody, harmony, rhythm and tone quality had to be reassessed. First attempts at a new mode of composition in any age are likely to be of more educational interest than artistic. New techniques and devices must first be tried in the fires of experimental creativity until those less effective are weeded out. As a result, the octave was split into smaller intervals than the twelve traditional semitones. This was known as "microtonality", resulting in "quarter-tone" pianos and the use of traditional instruments which could play intervals smaller than the semitone. Also, advances in the electronic tone production have developed instruments of very sophisticated types.

Practice and Performance: Notation and dynamic directions are increasingly specific. The performer is given very detailed directions as to tempi, dynamics, expression, and even tonal quality. Notation is often expressed in terms of graphs, charts and symbols which are specifically defined for the particular composition. The rise of jazz as a vehicle for creative and improvisatory expression of the performer is markedly important. Chance (aleatory) music became popular as well -- such as a composition for twelve radios tuned to different stations!

Prominent Musical Characteristics: Counterpoint is again significant; new chord patterns; polytonality (several tonalities used simultaneously); atonality (where tonal centers move too rapidly to be recognized by the listener); tone-row technique; polyrhythems; primitivism; notor-element; mixed-meters; dissonance; modes; variation principle; short themes and overall brevity; aleatory ideas; wide intervals; humor and satire; omission of barlines; sound blocks; clusters; constellations.

Instrumentation: Small ensembles, large orchestras, revival of the harpsichord, guitar, mandolin, many percussion instruments, electronic instruments and devices, tape recorder, synthesizer.

Vocal Compositions: Art song, choral works, opera, oratorio, and liturgical music.

Small Instrumental Forms: Overture, Symphonic poem, variation, dances, poetic pieces, electronic forms.

Large Instrumental Forms: Sonata, chamber music, symphony, concerto, suite, ballet, incidental music for film and drama.