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 practiceEzra Pound's modernist slogan, "Make it new," as applied to music. Modern music is often thought to begin with, or just after, Debussy's impressionist works, rising to rhetorical, if not commercial, dominance after World War Two, and then being gradually displaced by postmodern music.

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" 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 [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)

Daniel Albright (2004) dates musical modernism from 1894-5 (Debussy's Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche), and considers musical modernism's main features to be comprehensiveness and depth, semantic specificity and density, and Extensions and destructions of tonality.

However, as an alternative to this definition Albright proposes: "Modernism is a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction." Besides eliminating the progress meta-narrative of the above definition, this definition is also capable of application to more the music, artists, and movements considered modernist: Expressionism & New Objectivity, Hyperrealism & Abstractionism, Neoclassicism & Neobarbarism, Futurism & the mythic Method.

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 only to about 1930, and apply the term "postmodernism" to the period after that year (Karolyi 1994, 135; Meyer 1994, 331–32). In contrast, Albright (ibid) cites John Cage's 1951 composition of Music of Changes as the beginning of post-modern music.

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

  • Speech and singing

Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate (1921–32) develops from words like "fmsbwtözäu", taken from the "poster-poems" of Raoul Hausmann.

  • Expansion on/abandonment of tonality

Atonality, the twelve tone technique, polytonality, tone clusters, dissonant counterpoint, and serialism.

History of modernism in music

Late nineteenth-century origins

As with many other arts, the consciousness of modernity appeared before music which is now labelled "modernist".

Alternative categorizations

Despite Albright's definitions (ibid) he points out examples of his three traits of modernism long before 1894. Orlando Gibbons' The Cries of London, Joseph Haydn's The Creation, and many romantic works attempt maximal comprehensiveness and depth, such as Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Semantic specificity has always existed, such as in Clément Janequin's Le chant des oiseaux (birds), Alessandro Poglietti's Rossignolo (nightingale), Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (barking dog), Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (birds), or Haydn's The Seasons (frog croaks). Composers have long used semantic density to indicate disorder, while Nicolas Gombert has used four voices singing four simultaneous different antiphons to the Virgin Mary, as would be heard by the omniscient Mary. Chromaticism has existed since the Greeks in some conception or another, such as Carlo Gesualdo's Tristis est anima mea.

Albright also points out that there are few traits of postmodernism not present in modernism. Erik Satie and the neoclassicism of Stravinsky is sometimes near indistinguishable with bricolage and polystylism. Surrealist Marcel Duchamp wrote chance music while Cage was still into percussion.

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 neologism "too-muchness" to describe the excess of information contained in music exhibiting the New Complexity, and many would argue this applies to its modernist inspirations as well.


Arved Ashby (2004) compares the information actually conveyed when "Modernism Goes to the Movies" [by modernist music techniques in film scores] with the general failure to communicate attributed to modernist music by Fred Lerdahl and others and concludes that "the tendency to fault modernist music [for being non-syntactical] would seem, then, to stem from interrelated desires to limit the powers of music in general and to prevent it from keeping pace with the sociogenetic, media-related tendencies of recent decades." Perhaps, then, to deny that modernist music has meaning, in the face of its use for meaning, is to betray a desire to disallow that music meaning.


  • 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, edited by Arved Ashby, 345-86. 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?. 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 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.
  • 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
  • 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

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