Modernism (music)

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Richard Strauss in 1888, the year he composed Don Juan, a work emblematic of the elan vital and "breakaway mood" of modernism Der junge Richard Strauss.JPG
Richard Strauss in 1888, the year he composed Don Juan , a work emblematic of the élan vital and "breakaway mood" of modernism

In music, modernism is an aesthetic stance underlying the period of change and development in musical language that occurred around the turn of the 20th century, a period of diverse reactions in challenging and reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that led to new ways of organizing and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music, and changes in aesthetic worldviews in close relation to the larger identifiable period of modernism in the arts of the time. The operative word most associated with it is "innovation". [2] Its leading feature is a "linguistic plurality", which is to say that no one music genre ever assumed a dominant position. [3]


Inherent within musical modernism is the conviction that music is not a static phenomenon defined by timeless truths and classical principles, but rather something which is intrinsically historical and developmental. While belief in musical progress or in the principle of innovation is not new or unique to modernism, such values are particularly important within modernist aesthetic stances.

Edward Campbell (2010, p. 37) [emphasis added]

Examples include the celebration of Arnold Schoenberg's rejection of tonality in chromatic post-tonal and twelve-tone works and Igor Stravinsky's move away from symmetrical rhythm. [4]

Authorities typically regard musical modernism as an historical period or era extending from about 1890 to 1930, and apply the term "postmodernism" to the period or era after 1930. [5] [6] For the musicologist Carl Dahlhaus the purest form was over by 1910, but other historians consider modernism to end with one or the other of the two world wars. [7]


Carl Dahlhaus describes modernism as:

an obvious point of historical discontinuity  ... The "breakthrough" of Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy implies 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 Hermann Bahr's term "modernism" and speak of a stylistically open-ended "modernist music" extending (with some latitude) from 1890 to the beginnings of our own twentieth-century modern music in 1910. [8]

Eero Tarasti defines musical modernism directly in terms of "the dissolution of the traditional tonality and transformation of the very foundations of tonal language, searching for new models in atonalism, polytonalism or other forms of altered tonality", which took place around the turn of the century. [9]

Daniel Albright proposes a definition of musical modernism as, "a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction" and presents the following modernist techniques or styles: [10]

Conductor and scholar Leon Botstein describes musical modernism as "...a consequence of the fundamental conviction among successive generations of composers since 1900 that the means of musical expression in the 20th century must be adequate to the unique and radical character of the age", [11] which led to a reflection in the arts of the progress of science, technology and industry, mechanization, urbanization, mass culture and nationalism.

Other usage

The term "modernism" (and the term "post-modern") has occasionally been applied to some genres of popular music, but not with any very clear definition.

For example, the cultural studies professor Andrew Goodwin writes that "given the confusion of the terms, the identification of postmodern texts has ranged across an extraordinarily divergent, and incoherent profusion of textual instances ... Secondly, there are debates within popular music about pastiche and authenticity. 'Modernism' means something quite different within each of these two fields ... This confusion is obvious in an early formative attempt to understand rock music in postmodern terms". [12] Goodwin argues that instances of modernism in popular music are generally not cited because "it undermines the postmodern thesis of cultural fusion, in its explicit effort to preserve a bourgeois notion of Art in opposition to mainstream, 'commercial' rock and pop". [13]

Author Domenic Priore writes that: "the concept of Modernism was bound up in the very construction of the Greater Los Angeles area, at a time when the city was just beginning to come into its own as an international, cultural center",; [14] it appears that the word is used here as an equivalent of the term "modern". Priore cites "River Deep – Mountain High" by Ike & Tina Turner (1966) and "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys (1966). Desiring "a taste of Modern, avant-garde R&B" for the latter's recording, group member and song co-writer Brian Wilson considered the music "advanced rhythm and blues", but received criticism from his bandmates, who derided the track for being "too Modern" during its making. [15]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Modernism</span> Philosophical and art movement

Modernism is both a philosophical and arts movement that arose from broad transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement reflected a desire for the creation of new forms of art, philosophy, and social organization which reflected the newly emerging industrial world, including features such as urbanization, architecture, new technologies, and war. Artists attempted to depart from traditional forms of art, which they considered outdated or obsolete. The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to "Make it New" was the touchstone of the movement's approach.

Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse characterized by skepticism toward the "grand narratives" of modernism, opposition to epistemic certainty or stability of meaning, and emphasis on ideology as a means of maintaining political power. Claims to objective fact are dismissed as naïve realism, with attention drawn to the conditional nature of knowledge claims within particular historical, political, and cultural discourses. The postmodern outlook is characterized by self-referentiality, epistemological relativism, moral relativism, pluralism, irony, irreverence, and eclecticism; it rejects the "universal validity" of binary oppositions, stable identity, hierarchy, and categorization.

Postmodern music is music in the art music tradition produced in the postmodern era. It also describes any music that follows aesthetical and philosophical trends of postmodernism. As an aesthetic movement it was formed partly in reaction to modernism but is not primarily defined as oppositional to modernist music. Postmodernists question the tight definitions and categories of academic disciplines, which they regard simply as the remnants of modernity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Avant-garde</span> Works that are experimental or innovative

The avant-garde is a person or work that is experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Postmodern art</span> Art movement

Postmodern art is a body of art movements that sought to contradict some aspects of modernism or some aspects that emerged or developed in its aftermath. In general, movements such as intermedia, installation art, conceptual art and multimedia, particularly involving video are described as postmodern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neo-romanticism</span> Movements from the era of Romanticism

The term neo-romanticism is used to cover a variety of movements in philosophy, literature, music, painting, and architecture, as well as social movements, that exist after and incorporate elements from the era of Romanticism.

Avant-garde music is music that is considered to be at the forefront of innovation in its field, with the term "avant-garde" implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences. Avant-garde music may be distinguished from experimental music by the way it adopts an extreme position within a certain tradition, whereas experimental music lies outside tradition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tonality</span> Musical system

Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key, so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord. Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term "is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910". Contemporary classical music from 1910 to the 2000s may practice or avoid any sort of tonality—but harmony in almost all Western popular music remains tonal. Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, usually known as "classical music".

Neoromanticism in music is a return to the emotional expression associated with nineteenth-century Romanticism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carl Dahlhaus</span> German musicologist (1928–1989)

Carl Dahlhaus was a German musicologist who was among the leading postwar musicologists of the mid to late 20th-century. A prolific scholar, he had broad interests though his research focused on 19th- and 20th-century classical music, both areas in which he made significant advancements. However, he remains best known in the English-speaking world for his writings on Wagner. Dahlhaus wrote on many other composers, including Josquin, Gesualdo, Bach and Schoenberg.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aesthetics of music</span>

Aesthetics of music is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste in music, and with the creation or appreciation of beauty in music. In the pre-modern tradition, the aesthetics of music or musical aesthetics explored the mathematical and cosmological dimensions of rhythmic and harmonic organization. In the eighteenth century, focus shifted to the experience of hearing music, and thus to questions about its beauty and human enjoyment of music. The origin of this philosophic shift is sometimes attributed to Baumgarten in the 18th century, followed by Kant.

Daniel Albright was the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard and the editor of Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. He was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois and completed his undergraduate studies on a full scholarship at Rice in 1967. He received his MPhil in 1969 and PhD in 1970, both from Yale. Albright is also the author of the book Quantum Poetics which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1997. He held an NEH fellowship from 1973 to 1974, was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1976 to 1977, and more recently, he was a 2012 Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neomodern</span> Architectural style

Neomodern or neomodernist architecture is a reaction to the complexity of postmodern architecture and eclecticism in architecture, seeking greater simplicity. The architectural style, which is also referred to as New Modernism, is said to have legitimized an outlook of comprehensive individualism and relativism.

Surrealist music is music which uses unexpected juxtapositions and other surrealist techniques. Discussing Theodor W. Adorno, Max Paddison defines surrealist music as that which "juxtaposes its historically devalued fragments in a montage-like manner which enables them to yield up new meanings within a new aesthetic unity", though Lloyd Whitesell says this is Paddison's gloss of the term. Anne LeBaron cites automatism, including improvisation, and collage as the primary techniques of musical surrealism. According to Whitesell, Paddison quotes Adorno's 1930 essay "Reaktion und Fortschritt" as saying "Insofar as surrealist composing makes use of devalued means, it uses these as devalued means, and wins its form from the 'scandal' produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living."

Post-postmodernism is a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture which are emerging from and reacting to postmodernism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Classical music</span> Broad tradition of Western art music

Classical music generally refers to the art music of the Western world, considered to be distinct from Western folk music or popular music traditions. It is sometimes distinguished as Western classical music, as the term "classical music" also applies to non-Western art music. Classical music is often characterized by formality and complexity in its musical form and harmonic organization, particularly with the use of polyphony. Since at least the ninth century it has been primarily a written tradition, spawning a sophisticated notational system, as well as accompanying literature in analytical, critical, historiographical, musicological and philosophical practices. A foundational component of Western Culture, classical music is frequently seen from the perspective of individual or groups of composers, whose compositions, personalities and beliefs have fundamentally shaped its history.

In the visual arts, late modernism encompasses the overall production of most recent art made between the aftermath of World War II and the early years of the 21st century. The terminology often points to similarities between late modernism and post-modernism although there are differences. The predominant term for art produced since the 1950s is contemporary art. Not all art labelled as contemporary art is modernist or post-modern, and the broader term encompasses both artists who continue to work in modern and late modernist traditions, as well as artists who reject modernism for post-modernism or other reasons. Arthur Danto argues explicitly in After the End of Art that contemporaneity was the broader term, and that postmodern objects represent a subsector of the contemporary movement which replaced modernity and modernism, while other notable critics: Hilton Kramer, Robert C. Morgan, Kirk Varnedoe, Jean-François Lyotard and others have argued that postmodern objects are at best relative to modernist works.

In music, neoconservative postmodernism is "a sort of 'postmodernism of reaction'," which values "textual unity and organicism as totalizing musical structures" like "latter-day modernists".

Metamodernism is a term that refers to a range of developments observed in many areas of art, culture and philosophy, emerging in the aftermath of postmodernism, roughly at the turn of the 21st century. To many, it is characterized as mediations between aspects of modernism and postmodernism; for others the term suggests an integration of those sensibilities with premodern cultural codes as well. Metamodernism is one of a number of attempts to describe post-postmodernism.


  1. Dahlhaus 1989, pp. 331, 334.
  2. Metzer 2009, p. 3.
  3. Morgan 1984, p. 443.
  4. Campbell 2010, p. 37.
  5. Károlyi 1994, p. 135.
  6. Meyer 1994, pp. 331–332.
  7. Albright 2004, p. 13.
  8. Dahlhaus 1989, p. 334.
  9. Tarasti 1979, p. 272.
  10. Albright 2004, p. 11.
  11. Botstein 2001.
  12. Goodwin 2006, p. 441.
  13. Goodwin 2006, p. 446.
  14. Priore 2005, p. 16.
  15. Priore 2005, pp. 16, 20, 48.


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  • Botstein, Leon. "Modernism". Grove Music Online edited by Laura Macy. (subscription required).
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