The Composers and Styles That Defined 20th Century Music

Debussy playing the piano
João Carvalho/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In this article, we'll look at the music forms and styles, as well as the composers and musicians, who defined 20th century music. 

Prior to and after World War II, the United States became a center of musical activity. Many composers from Europe moved to the US, some of them even became faculty members.

Music Forms and Styles

  • 12-tone System - A term mainly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg wanted to eliminate the tonal center and developed a technique called 12-tone system wherein all the 12 notes of the octave are of equal importance. The 12 notes are placed in a specific order called a "tone-row" or "tone-series," and no note is repeated within a row. This evoked music that felt anxious and unresolved.
  • Concert Music - Many composers combined jazz music elements with other music styles such as classical and blues. Music during this time also spoke of nationalistic fervor. Some of the composers whose works were greatly appreciated were George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), Aaron Copland (Rodeo) and Dmitry Shostakovich (The Golden Age).
  • Electronic Music - Composers experimented with technology and how it affects certain aspects of music such as melody and rhythm.
  • Impressionistic - A term derived from one of Monet's works - Impression, Sunrise. In music it is applied to works of early 20th century composers such as Debussy. Debussy rejected the rules of tonality and created music that is pleasing to the ears as impressionist paintings are appealing to the eyes. This resulted in music that was relaxed, almost dreamlike.
  • Jazz - Jazz can be traced back to earlier African-American music styles. Jazz music is particularly notable for its improvisation, harmonic progressions and syncopated (modified) rhythms.
  • Minimalism - Music that was simple, featured patterns that were repeated and supported by a steady beat. The music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass were labeled as such.
  • New Romanticism - A movement that began in eastern Europe. It is the desire for music that was expressive, haunting and mysterious, much like the music of the past. Composers who used this technique were George Crumb (Ancient Voices of Children) and Gyorgy Ligeti (Lux Aeterna), among others.
    • Neoclassical - A term applied to the music of early 20th century composers like Stravinsky which reflects 18th century music. Stravinsky's works, particularly after the highly acclaimed The Rite of Spring, did not emphasize tonality but felt restrained. Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev, the producer of the Ballet Rouse. His earlier works reflected influences from Debussy,;/qt/dissonance.htm]dissonance and irregular rhythmic patterns.
    • Serialism - Based on Schoenberg's 12-tone system which was continued by his student Anton von Webern. Mostly evident in the music of the 1950s and 60s but appreciation was limited to university professors and their students. Serialism used a strict musical formula that was difficult to play. Composers who used this technique were Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, to name a few.

    Notable Composers and Musicians

    • Henry Cowell - American composer, one of the inventors of an electrical instrument called "rhythmicon." Wrote pieces wherein the musicians played the keys of a piano by striking it with their forearms or wrists and strumming or plucking the strings.
    • Edward Elgar - English composer, who, according to Richard Strauss, was the "first English progressive musician."
    • Charles Ives - The first known composer of polytonal pieces.
    • Jean Sibelius- Finnish composer, conductor and teacher especially known for his orchestral works and symphonies.
    • Edgard Varese - One of the composers who experimented with music and technology. He wrote a piece for an orchestra composed of solely percussion instruments. Also experimented in taped music and electronic instruments.
    • Anton von Webern - Austrian composer belonging to the 12-tone Viennese school.