What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?
In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.
In this final installment, we will explore Modern music…from the twentieth century and beyond.
The Modern Period
The Modern period began in 1900 and continues through the present day.
Needless to say, there have been huge changes across the world in Modern times.
The Great Depression, two devastating world wars, unprecedented technological advances, and a growing sense of globalism…these all affected the world of music in their own unique ways.
It would be almost impossible to cover all composers from 1900 onward in a post like this.
Instead, I’ll discuss the most prominent composers from the Modern classical, jazz, ragtime, and film genres.
Erik Satie, an eccentric French composer, was known for his avant-garde style of music. He was the first composer to promote the idea of background music, which he called “furniture music”.
Two talented sisters, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, composed chamber, orchestral, and vocal works. Lili in particular had exceptional composing talent, becoming the first woman to win the Prix de Rome prize in 1913.
After Lili’s early death, Nadia stopped composing and embarked on a legendary teaching career. Her students included Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and Thea Musgrave.
In Soviet Russia two composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, achieved international fame. Prokofiev is best remembered as the composer of Peter and the Wolf, a famous symphony created for children. Shostakovich wrote many amazing symphonies. His “Leningrad” symphony, named after the besieged Russian city, was credited with boosting its citizens’ morale during World War II.
The unconventional works of Charles Ives were influenced by American spirituals, revivals, and folk tunes.
Scott Joplin is the most well-known composer of ragtime music. His most popular pieces are Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, and The Chrysanthemum.
May Frances Aufderheide composed seven ragtime pieces for piano. Two of them became bestsellers.
French organist Olivier Messiaen’s music was a blend of complex chord progressions, expressive melodies, and a mystic version of Roman Catholicism. His Quartet for the End of Time was written and premiered in a German POW camp where he was imprisoned during the early 1940s.
Maurice Ravel was a French Impressionist composer like Debussy (although he hated the term Impressionism, also like Debussy).
Polish musician Grażyna Bacewicz was known for producing compositions quickly. She wrote a set of piano preludes by the time she was twelve years old! She was one of the first members of the Poland Composers Union, which was founded shortly after Poland’s liberation.
Ruth Crawford Seeger was one of the few women in the avant-garde movement. She was also an advocate for American folk music.
Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian native of Jewish descent, taught composition at an academy in Berlin until the Nazis came to power and forced him out. He immigrated to America, where he continued to compose and teach on his Serialist twelve-tone technique.
Schoenberg’s students Alban Berg and Anton Webern further experimented with his twelve-tone serialism. They were both leading avant-garde composers.
John Philip Sousa composed so many marches that he became known to history as “The American March King”. His most famous works include Semper Fidelis, Stars and Stripes Forever, and The Gladiator March.
Duke Ellington was a master jazz composer and a pioneer in the combining of jazz and classical music styles.
George Gershwin and Irving Berlin wrote some of America’s most beloved jazz and popular songs. Some of the most well known are Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Berlin’s White Christmas.
Igor Stravinsky’s music is fascinating and controversial: his Rite of Spring ballet was so jarring and unconventional that its premiere caused a riot.
Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Geoges Auric, and Louis Durey made up a group of French composers known as “Les Six”. This group experimented with many different styles, from Neoclassicism to modern dissonance.
In England, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaugh Williams took center stage: Britten for his masterful operas, and Williams for his skill in many genres as well as his interest in reviving English folk music.
Bela Bartok, a Hungarian pianist, was especially famous for his chamber music. He loved to study traditional Hungarian folk songs and dances, often incorporating them into his works.
Florence Price has the distinction of being the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major American orchestra. Her Symphony in E Minor, for which she is most remembered, is a striking work of originality and beauty.
Glenn Miller was one of the most successful composers of big band music. He was also the leader of the Air Force Band during World War II. Sadly, he went missing in action in December 1944. His fate was never discovered.
Miriam Gideon was one of America’s most prominent female composers during the twentieth century. Her career spanned six decades.
American Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young were the most prominent composers in the creation of Minimalist music.
John Adams (not to be confused with the American president of the same name) is another Minimalist composer. He is well known for his piece Phrygian Gates.
Leonard Bernstein was as famous for his conducting as he was for his composing. He wrote in many genres, and his musical West Side Story remains beloved today.
Aaron Copland is another legendary composer of ballet, opera, and film music. His Appalachian Spring is one of the most recognizable pieces of American classical music.
John Cage’s avant-garde works include pieces with prepared pianos, electronic instruments, indeterminancy, and his famous 4’33, where the performer sits in silence for four and a half minutes.
Milton Babbit was known for his unusual serialist styles of electronic music.
Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is known especially for her chamber works.
Krzysztof Penderecki was a creative Polish composer. His style ranges from Neoromantic to the electrifyingly Modern Threnody to the Victims of Heroshima.
Thea Musgrave has made a name for herself as a composer of Modern opera. In particular, her Mary, Queen of Scots has been lauded by critics.
In 1983, Ellen Taafe Zwilich became the first woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in music. She is known for the colorful orchestration of her instrumental works.
Jennifer Higdon, another Pulitzer Prize winner, composed the orchestral piece Blue Cathedral in memory of her late brother Andrew Blue Higdon.
The Modern period brought a new development to the world: the genre of film and television music.
Some of the most successful composers in this genre are Karl Friedhoffer, Alfred Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Danny Elfman.
Electronic music reached its heyday in the twentieth century. Composers like Milton Babbit and John Cage used electronic sounds to create unusual orchestras and ensembles.
Sometimes these electronic sounds are combined with traditional instruments. Other times they are played alone.
Equal temperament, which has been the dominant tuning system since the Baroque period, has been set aside by some composers for other systems. Many of these systems come from the past or from other non-Western styles of music.
Within Modern experimentation, composers have pushed the boundaries of traditional musical theory. Music can now be polytonal (in more than one key at a time), atonal (not in a specific key), and arhythmic (without a specifically notated rhythm).
Indeterminancy has also become more popular. In indeterminate music, some part of the performance is left up to the musician, such as what notes are played, what rhythms are used, or what instrument(s) are played.
Graphic notation grew in popularity throughout the 1900s. In this system of notation, traditional symbols for notes and rests are replaced by unusual symbols, colors, and objects. Sometimes composers leave specific instructions for the interpretation of these symbols, while others allow the performer to interpret them as he or she desires.
A culture of classics has emerged in the Modern musical world. This stands in contrast to earlier periods of music history, when new and fresh music was prized more than the great masterworks of the past.
The advent of radio, television, and movies opened up a new world of opportunity for aspiring composers, which continues to this day.
Recordings of favorite musicians and artists were made available for the record player, then the Walkman, the CD, and more recently through streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.
In the Modern period, music is seen more and more as an expression of individuality.
Pianos remain extremely popular, as well as brass, wind, string, and percussion instruments.
The more experimental music of the Modern period uses unconventional objects as instruments: car horns, PVC pipes, doorbells, and even vegetables!
Electronic instruments are also very common.
Modern Musical Styles
The avant-garde movement swept through the arts during the Modern period. The main goal of avant-garde music is to push music to its boundaries, redefining what melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation can look like.
Serialist music, which originated with Arnold Schoenberg, uses the twelve tones of the chromatic scale to create “tone rows”. These tone rows can be inverted or played in retrograde, making for some intriguing possibilities.
Minimalist music is soft and soothing, often featuring a main theme which changes and evolves very slowly over a long period of time.
Electronic music takes a variety of forms, from more traditional to mechanical to bizarre.
Neoclassic and Neoromantic styles of music often stand in contrast to the avant-garde. Instead of looking forward to new possibilities, these styles try to capture the past beauty and uniqueness of the Classical and Romantic periods, respectively.
Jazz is a distinctly American style of music, originating with the African American population after slavery was ended. Blues and ragtime are closely related to the jazz style, which incorporates many elements from traditional African music.
Big band, or a large jazz ensemble, was extremely popular in the years between World War I and II.
Film, radio, and television soundtracks often center around the theme of the stories or characters from the plot.
(A famous example of this is John Williams’ The Imperial March from the Star Wars movie saga. You only have to hear the first few notes to instantly think of Darth Vader!)
Rock and roll music swept the world by storm in the years after WWII. Rock is still a popular genre today, although it has evolved quite a bit from its original style.
Rap, hip-hop, metal, pop, and country all have their roots, to varying degrees, in the old rock and roll style.
Below is a recording of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, his signature composition. This piece was very popular in America before and during the Second World War.
And that is the story of the Modern period of music history. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!
Other Periods of Music History Featured in This Series:
The Ancient Period, The Medieval Period, The Renaissance Period, The Baroque Period, The Classical Period, The Romantic Period