20th Century Music

Imagine for a moment that you were alive in 1900 and you wanted to hear the most recent popular song or a classical piece of music. What would you do? There were really only two options at that time: either perform it yourself or go hear someone else perform it. The number of choices grew though, when the phonograph was invented. With the development of radio, the cassette, CDs, and now, the Internet, we can listen to almost anything at any time.

A quick look at history reveals that almost everything has happened faster in the twentieth century than any other period. For one, we have experienced rapid mechanical and technical developments. Within 100 years we have progressed from a society in which almost nobody had electricity to a society in which almost everyone has access to a computer. This century has seen many changes in popular tastes and styles as well as personal and social values.

The world of Western art music has experienced the same rapid changes in style. One general trend of twentieth century composers is a tendency to experiment and find something new and different. The composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) went through several stylistic phases in his career. Because our century has moved so quickly, we have had several styles of composition all being written at the same time.

As composers in the romantic era headed towards the twentieth century, there was a tendency for them to write melodies that were more and more complex. Melodies in the twentieth century are even more complicated and usually unpredictable. They contain more leaps and are often quite disjointed. Harmony has become more dissonant, and harsher sounds are more prominent. Composers have also experimented with new and different chords. Rhythm has also become much more intricate and we often hear several different patterns played at the same time.

As harmony and melody grew in complexity, tonality became less clear. Tonality is like a gravitational force in music that leads the melody and harmony towards one central pitch. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) dispensed of tonality altogether by composing atonal music — music in which all pitches are given equal emphasis and tonality is nonexistent.

Twentieth century composers have experimented extensively with tone color by writing for new combinations of instruments. Before 1900 it would have seemed absurd to compose a melody to be played together by a piccolo and a tuba. In the twentieth century anything is possible. Also, new techniques of sound production have been utilized on instruments that have been around for hundreds of years. For example, piano players can create sounds not just by pressing down the keys on the keyboard, but by reaching into the body of the instrument and strumming or plucking the strings. In orchestral music composers added many new percussion instruments creating a variety of powerful and sometimes exotic sounds. Tone color was particularly important to Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the French impressionist composers.

Composers in search of new melodic material have often combined the folk music of their native land with their own musical ideas. Bela Bartok (1881-1945) was a master at fusing Hungarian folk tunes with his modern style. In the United States, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) united their music with American folk songs and jazz.