20th-Century Movements


Impressionism was a term at first used mockingly to describe the work of the French painter Monet and his circle, who later made use of the word themselves. It was similarly used to describe an element of vagueness and imprecision coupled with a perceived excess of attention to color in the early music of Debussy, who did not accept the criticism or the label, although his harmonic innovations and approach to composition have points in common with the ideals of Monet.

It was a style whose artistic language included suggestive colors, lines, words, melodies, and harmonies.  The listener, viewer, and reader were called upon to supply the details and complete the images.  Led by Debussy, composers denied both the objectivity of programmatic composers and the pathos of the Romantic idealists.  Impressionistic music was a music of coloristic effects, of vague harmonies, and loosely knit forms.

Composers / Examples


Primitivism was a reaction from the over-refinement of such artists as Debussy and Ravel.  Its adherents favored simple, clear-cut tunes of folk character that revolved around a central note and moved within a narrow compass; massive harmonies based on block-like chords moving in parallel formation with harshly percussive effect;  ostinato rhythms repeated with an almost obsessive effect and a rugged orchestration featuring massed sonorities which contrasted sharply with the coloristic subtleties of the Impressionists.

20th-century composers found inspiration not only in African music but also in the songs and dances of the borderlands of Western culture -- southeastern Europe, Asiatic Russia, and the Near East.  Out of the unspoiled, vigorous folk music of these regions came rhythms of an elemental power that tapped fresh sources of feeling and imagination.

Composers / Examples


Term taken over from the visual arts and used, more or less metaphorically, for music written in a deeply subjective and introspective style.  The composition of such music is roughly lined in inspiration with the German school of expressionist painters.  These painters sought to go beyond the purely visual appearance and to depict the artist's subjective interpretation of reality, using distortion, exaggeration, symbolism, etc.

Composers / Examples


Neoclassical style in music indicates a 20th century eclectic return by some composers to various styles and forms of earlier periods, whether classical or baroque.  One of the main achievements of Neoclassicism was the revival of the absolute forms -- symphony, concerto, sonata, and various types of chamber music.  Equally significant was the return to the forms of the pre-romantic eras such as suite, divertimento, toccata, concerto grosso, fugue, passacaglia, and chaconne.

(See the article Neoclassicism)

Composers / Examples


Serialism is the important 20th century compositional technique that uses, as a basis of unity, a series of pitches (the original concept was to use all twelve semitones in the octave) in a certain order, which may then be taken in retrograde form, in inversion and in retrograde inversion, and also in transposition. The technique, an extension of late romantic chromaticism, was formulated by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s followed by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and thereafter by many other composers. Problems arise for the listener in the difficulty of hearing the series, however visually apparent from the written score.

Serialism may also extend to the other elements of musical construction, such as vertical sonorities (harmony), rhythm, dynamics, timber, etc.

Composers / Examples

Indeterminacy / Aleatory (Chance) Music

Music of the mid-20th century in which the composer assigns a major creative role to the performer.  In such music, the composer may provide a set of detailed materials or a vague outline of the entire piece, leaving the order of execution or the filling in of details to the performer.  If the performer is to work out the actual pitches and rhythm, the composer will normally abandon traditional musical notation and work out one that will convey his particular ideas.  The shape of a musical gesture (phrase) may be suggested by a line, for example, or intensity or duration by the size of the figure.  Different performances of the same work may vary greatly, and the receptivity and imagination of the performer becomes of far greater importance than in traditional music.

Since neither composer nor performer is necessarily bound by the limitations of metrical rhythm, great rhythmic freedom may be achieved in chance music.  In addition to traditional vocal and instrumental sound, tonal resources comprise also vocal and instrumental sounds produced in abnormal fashion and sounds from extramusical sources (e.g., striking or dragging of chairs or stands).  Intensive interest in chance music began in the 1950's with works of such diverse composers as Stockhausen and Cage.

Composers / Examples


The Minimalist concept began in the 1960's with a group of young composers who began exploring the possibilities of working with extremely reduced resources from which to draw.  They limited themselves to very basic, "minimal" musical elements.  Although they were influenced by John Cage, these composers moved off in a completely different direction, rejecting indeterminacy and attempting to bring music back to a more elemental basis.

(See article Minimalism)

Composers / Examples

Electronic Music

Music drawing on tonal resources made available through modern recording techniques and electronic generation of sound.  Composers began to draw on these resources shortly before the mid-20th century, and have already evolved a variety of compositional procedures and styles.

Musique concrete

Employs primarily material gathered from sources previously considered as nonmusical -- that is, noises of all varieties.  These are dissected, transposed, amplified, and otherwise manipulated electronically.  The resultant sounds are recorded on tape and then assembled to form musical patterns.
  • Pierre Schaeffer
    • Etude aux chemins de fer (Study on a Railway) (1948)
  • Messiaen
    • Timbres-dureés
  • Varèse
    • Poème electronique (1958)
Electronic Sound Production
European composers of electronic music made extensive use of sound produced by electronic means.  Electronic generators, used in combination with filters, modulators, and similar devices may produce either nearly pure sounds or complex ones, with any number of harmonics, with any given order of emphasis.  They may also produce irregular sounds or noises.  Any of the resources listed above may be combined with traditional sources of musical sounds, such as voice or orchestra.