Genres of Music in the 20th Century






    Music in the twentieth century underwent significant change, mirroring the revolutions occurring in all aspects of life during those years. The concept of music also shifted and composers changed their attitudes towards their work.

    Nationalism was a key theme in the twentieth century across all areas of culture and the arts. In music, nationalism manifested itself through compositional elements like the use of folk-song of the composer’s country or elements of popular culture that would make a work more relatable to the population. An example of this is Jean Sibelius’ tone poem Finlandia which depicts the difficulties faced by the Finnish nation in the twentieth century.

    Expressionist music was a style of music that was born following the end of the First World War which set out to subvert the imagery of the romantics and impressionists. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and the other members of the Second Viennese School used extreme contrasts of dynamics, rhythm and pitch to present a new vision of music following the horrors of the war. Schoenberg’s piece Pierrot Lunaire is a pivotal work of expressionism.

    ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, 1893

    Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was at the forefront of neoclassicism, a movement in music where composers looked back to the past and incorporated traditional compositional techniques into their contemporary work. Inspired by composers of the Baroque and Classical eras, Prokofiev composed his fifth symphony which uses older forms through a modern lens which added a sense of humour, charm, and often sarcasm to his music.

    Modernism was a movement that embodied and amplified the cultural developments at the turn of the century. A key musical figure in modernism was Igor Stravinsky. The jagged edges and shocking soundscape of his Rite of Spring reflected the newfound struggles of the twentieth century. He broke many traditions of the previous Romantic era and developed new approaches to harmony, rhythm and instrumentation.

    In the latter half of the twentieth century, experimental music was developing in places like New York and Paris. Composers aimed to further distort the ideas of music and break down the traditional methods of music making. John Cage was an innovator in the field and developed techniques that incorporated chance and incidental elements into music. One ground-breaking example of Cage’s music is 4’33”, a work existing of complete silence. The aim of the piece was to set the background noises in the performance space as the main musical elements.

    Minimalism emerged out of the developments made in experimental music. It was a style of music that used minimal musical elements, often taking the form of small repetitive cells of music being arranged using mathematical processes. Michael Nyman was a prolific British composer whose work In Re Don Giovanni is a clear example of minimalist music with repetitive harmonies and rhythmic ideas.

    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton is currently reading an undergraduate degree in Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where he studies modern violin with Susanne Stanzeleit and baroque violin with Lucy Russell. Whilst at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Oliver often plays in the Birmingham New Music concert series where he premiers new compositions. Oliver also works as a creative, collaborating on various artistic projects in and around Birmingham. Oliver regularly performs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus singing alongside the CBSO. When not playing the violin, Oliver is an avid reader of modern and contemporary fiction and writes commercially. Before attending higher education, he studied German and History alongside Music.
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