Modernism (music)

Richard Strauss in 1888, the year of Don Juan, which symbolizes the élan vital and "breakaway mood" of modernism (Dahlhaus 1989, 331, 334)
Periods and eras of
Western classical music
Medieval c. 500–1400
Renaissance c. 1400–1600
Common practice
Baroque c. 1600–1750
Classical c. 1730–1820
Romantic c. 1780–1910
Impressionist c. 1875–1925
Modern and contemporary
c. 1890–1975
20th century (1900–2000)
c. 1975–present
21st century (2000–present)

In music, modernism is a philosophical and 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 lead 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" (Metzer 2009, 3). Its leading feature is a "linguistic plurality", which is to say that no one music genre ever assumed a dominant position (Morgan 1984, 443).

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, 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 metrical rhythm (Campbell 2010, 37).


Musicologist 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. (Dahlhaus 1989, 334)

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 (Tarasti 1979, 272).

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 (Albright 2004, 11):


Some writers regard musical modernism as an historical period extending from about 1890 to 1930, and apply the term "postmodernism" to the period after 1930 (Karolyi 1994, 135; Meyer 1994, 331–332).

Other writers assert that modernism is not attached to any historical period, but rather is "an attitude of the composer; a living construct that can evolve with the times" (McHard 2008, 14).


Further information: Bebop

According to jazz drummer and bandleader Kenny Clarke, bebop was initially referred to as "modern jazz" by himself and his contemporaries before it was co-opted to the name "bebop" by other writers (Du Noyer 2003, 130).

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" (Goodwin 2006, 441). 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" (Goodwin 2006, 446).

Modernism in popular music had been named as early as the late 1950s when burgeoning Los Angeles rock and roll radio station KRLA started dubbing their air space "Modern Radio/Los Angeles". Author Domenic Priore believes 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" (Priore 2005, 16). Some examples which soon followed include the elaborately arranged "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 (Priore 2005, 16, 20, 48).

Art rock and progressive rock artists such as the Velvet Underground, Henry Cow, Soft Machine, and Hatfield and the North would later exhibit modernist aspirations (Goodwin 2006, 446), although Goodwin posits that progressive rock should be considered "anathema" to postmodernism (Goodwin 2006, 444).

See also


  • Albright, Daniel. 2004. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  • Botstein, Leon. "Modernism". Grove Music Online edited by Laura Macy. <> (subscription required).
  • Campbell, Edward. 2010. Boulez, Music and Philosophy. ISBN 978-0-521-86242-4.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1989. Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Goodwin, Andrew (2006). "Popular Music and Postmodern Theory". In John Storey. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-2849-2. 
  • Károlyi, Ottó. 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.
  • McHard, James L. 2008. The Future of Modern Music: A Philosophical Exploration of Modernist Music in the 20th Century and Beyond, third edition. Livonia, Michigan: Iconic Press ISBN 978-0-9778195-1-5.
  • Metzer, David Joel. 2009. Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Music in the Twentieth Century 26. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-51779-9.
  • 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.
  • Morgan, Robert P. 1984. "Secret Languages: The Roots of Musical Modernism". Critical Inquiry 10, no. 3 (March): 442–61.
  • Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 
  • Priore, Domenic (2005). Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece. London: Sanctuary. ISBN 1860746276. 
  • Russolo, Luigi. 1913. L'arte dei rumori: manifesto futurista. Milan: Direzione del Movimento Futurista.
  • Tarasti, Eero. 1979. Myth and Music: A Semiotic Approach to the Aesthetics of Myth in Music, Especially that of Wagner, Sibelius and Stravinsky. Acta Musicologica Fennica 11; Religion and Society 51. Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura; The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 9789027979186.

Further reading

  • Albright, Daniel. 2000. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01253-0 (cloth) ISBN 0-226-01254-9 (pbk).
  • Albright, Daniel. 2011. "Musical Motives". In The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, second edition, edited by Michael H. Levenson, 232–44. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1-107-01063-2 (cloth); ISBN 0-521-28125-3 (pbk).
  • Anon. n.d. "Poème electronique". The EMF Institute website (Archive, accessed 27 February 2012).
  • Ashby, Arved. 2004. "Modernism Goes to the Movies". In The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology, edited by Arved Ashby, 345-86. Eastman Studies in Music. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.
  • Bernstein, David W., John Rockwell, and Johannes Goebel. 2008. The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-garde. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-24892-2 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-520-25617-0 (pbk).
  • Bohlman, Philip V. (ed.). 2009. Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-06327-0.
  • Botstein, Leon. 1985. "Music and Its Public: Habits of Listening and the Crisis of Musical Modernism in Vienna, 1870–1914". Ph.D. thesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
  • Bucknell, Brad. 2001. Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics: Pater, Pound, Joyce, and Stein. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66028-9.
  • Cavell, Stanley. 1976. "Music Discomposed", in his Must We Mean What We Say?. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29048-1 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-21116-6 (pbk). Updated edition, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-82188-6 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-52919-0 (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.
  • Despic, Dejan, and Melita Milin (eds.). 2008. Rethinking Musical Modernism: Proceedings of the International Conference Held from October 11 to 13, 2007 / Muzicki modernizam—nova tumacenja : zbornik radova sa naucnog skupa odzanog od 11. do 13. oktobra 2007. Belgrade: Institute of Musicology. ISBN 978-86-7025-463-3.
  • Drury, Stephen. n.d. "In a Landscape". (Accessed 27 February 2012).
  • Duncan, William Edmondstoune. 1917. Ultra-Modernism in Music: A Treatise on the Latter-day Revolution in Musical Art. Schirmer's Red Series of Music Text Books. London: Winthrop Rogers.
  • Earle, Benjamin. 2011. Luigi Dallapiccola and Musical Modernism in Fascist Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-84403-1 (cloth); e-book reprint 2013, ISBN 9781107416383.
  • Everdell, William. 1997. "Arnold Schoenberg: Music in No Key". In The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, edited by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-22480-5 (cloth); ISBN 0-226-22481-3 (paperback).
  • Ferneyhough, Brian. 1995. Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop. New York: Routledge. ISBN 3-7186-5577-2.
  • Frisch, Walter. 2005. German Modernism: Music and the Arts. California Studies in 20th-century Music. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24301-3.
  • Griffiths, Paul. 1981. Modern Music: The Avant Garde since 1945. New York: George Braziller. ISBN 0-8076-1018-6 (pbk).
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E. 2012. The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton. Music in Context. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-76521-3.
  • Hess, Carol A. 2001. Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898-1936. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-33038-9.
  • Hisama, Ellie M. 2006. Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon. Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis 15. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-02843-1.
  • Loya, Shay. 2011. Liszt's Transcultural Modernism and the Hungarian-Gypsy Tradition. Eastman Studies in Music. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 9781580463232.
  • Riley, Matthew (ed.). 2010. British Music and Modernism, 1895–1960. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6585-4.
  • Schleifer, Ronald (2014). Modernism and Popular Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107655300. 
  • Sitsky, Larry. 2002. Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-29689-8.
  • Smith Brindle, Reginald. 1987. The New Music: The Avant-garde Since 1945, second edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315471-4 (cloth) ISBN 0-19-315468-4 (pbk).
  • Straus, Joseph Nathan. 1990. Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-75990-7.
  • Taruskin, Richard. 1987. "The First Modernist". The New Republic 197, no. 26 (28 December): 36–40. Reprinted in: Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays, 195–201. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-24977-6.
  • Watkins, Glenn. 1994. Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-74083-1.
  • Williams, Alastair. 1999. "Adorno and the Semantics of Modernism". Perspectives of New Music 37, no. 2 (Summer): 29–50.
  • Youmans, Charles Dowell. 2005. Richard Strauss's Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34573-1.
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