The following was originally published November 18, 2010 at
Major Characteristics of the 20th Century


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One of the most famous works that sound like the ocean is Claude Debussy's "La Mer." Debussy was a French impressionist, largely influenced by Eastern music. In fact, much of the music that he wrote incorporated musical elements from the East. For example, Debussy used the whole tone scale (a particularly "spacy" sounding scale") when he wrote.
Close your eyes when you listen to "La Mer". You can hear the sound of the waves crashing, of thunder, and of giant ships being tossed about. Debussy created these sounds by using clever orchestration. Orchestration is simply choosing which instrument should play a certain part. For example, a melody might sound better with the flute than with the tuba.
Listen to Debussy's "La Mer." What instruments make the wave sounds? What do you think about when you hear this piece?
Listening Link: Debussy's La Mer performed by the London Symphony


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Igor Stravinsky
Rite of Spring


1877 Edison Invented the Cylinder disk, and by 1897, records began to radically change the way music was heard by listeners. Eventually, radio, TV, computers, and the internet all changed the way that music was heard, sold, distributed, and stored.

Diversity and Globalization

The 20th Century saw the world grow much smaller, and greater acceptance of cultural diversity. From the World Fair in 1889, which inspired Impressionist Composer Claude Debussy to write music based on the Javanese Gamelan, to increased technological wizardry through live cross-Atlantic electronic video concerts with Pauline Oliveros, the world grew increasingly smaller as technology and transportation improved.

Another exciting development in 20th century included increases in women's education, which allowed many talented women to pursue their love of music professionally. Previous to this time period, a talented musician (like Mozart's equally talented sister Maria or Mendelssohn's sister Fanny) was not allowed to pursue her musical career because her duty was to marry well. There are notable exceptions to this rule (Barbara Strozzi or the nun Hildegard von Bingen), but generally, women are not recognized for their musical achievements until the late 1800s.

Amy Beach "Gaelic Symphony"


African-American music in the US gave birth to an exciting new musical style: Jazz, a unique blend of European and African musical styles. Borrowing from the spirituals, ragtime, blues, and traditional European art music, Jazz took the 20th century by storm, with talented composers like Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein creating classical works with jazz influence.

Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin

Satin Doll by Duke Ellington

Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin Porgy and Bess

As we are exploring the 20th century and beyond this week, it would be remiss not to mention the importance of the musical in the 20th century. A musical and an opera, while both large musical productions, can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. The American Musical actually finds its birthplace more in vaudeville than in classical music. How? The innovation of adding sound to film suddenly allowed popular vaudeville acts to gain a new audience through film. Now they could perform for thousands of people without having to travel as extensively. Because of this, the first musicals in the US often were closer to variety acts than actual performances with plots.
However, as time (and film) brought the genre to the forefront, the plots became more substantial and attempted to make a statement, instead of just provide mediocre entertainment.Contemporary musicals, like Rent, attempt to combine great music with a message. Cartoons helped with the resurgence of musicals. Disney especially had a series of musicals like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (which won an Oscar for best film) that experienced great success. And film reprisals, like the award-winning Chicago, have helped keep the genre alive.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera remains to be one of the most impressive musicals of our time. It stands along with other great musicals like Les Miserables, Porgy and Bess (sometimes considered an opera), and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.


Shower Scene from Psycho
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The above was originally published November 18, 2010 at
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There have actually been many new music movements in the last half century of classical music. While technology has made many aspects of composition much, much easier (I don't have to sit by candlelight and transcribe fifty parts by hand for the next orchestra rehearsal) and has led to a lot of laziness (especially for those that are not well-trained), classical composers that have been formally trained and use the technology to better their music (and not just substitute for bad music) have forged new musical ideas.

Here are a few of the musical movements in the last half century:
• Minimalism (Kamien pg 486)
• Neo-Romanticism and Neo-Classicism
• Computer Music and Electroacoustic Music (pg 498 Kamien)
• Intermedia, Multimedia, Mixed Media
• Chance Music (Kamien pg 485)
What is exciting is that technology is constantly opening up new doors to sound and music. Everything has not been invented. There are new technologies, hybrid instruments, computer languages, world fusion forms, and contemporary jazz styles being incorporated into new music each day. It is almost impossible to keep up with!

Schoenberg's technique, albeit very unpleasing to listen to generally, gave birth to a compositional style that influenced all composers after him. His atonal theory is still studied today by composers. Even though strict serialism is not practiced very often any more (except in Japan and in some computer music), the techniques are used by almost all major composers in some way or another.

Atonality and Serialism

The atonal system was a large break from the traditions of before. Western music first began with simple intervals in the time of Pythagorus. His system marked intervals like a unison and an octave as the most tonal (and pleasing to the ear). In the middle ages, musicians used church modes (Gregorian Chant ex.: In the Baroque Era, composers began to use what is now considered major and minor scales. True western harmony was born.

When Arnold Schoenberg experimented with atonality, he developed a complex musical (and mathematical) system. Essentially, a composer would arrange the twelve notes of a scale in a specific row, and then compose using those rows (in that order alone) to eliminate any sense of tonality. Eventually, composers began creating complex matrices to develop these rows. Schoenberg's works were revolutionary. However, while contemporary composers learn this style of composition, generally, most composers do not use strict atonal music theory in their works.

(For those musicians that want to try making a matrix, check out this site:

Arnold Schoenberg

Alban Berg
An opera

William Grant Still

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"A Black Pierrot" from Songs of Separation Art song


Aaron Complan

Charles Ives

Ives was quite an unusual composer. He knew his music was a bit whacked out, so he opted to hold down a day job while composing in his free time. Because he was so isolated from the music world, his style was most certainly different. He incorporates many quotes from famous and popular compositions. Some of his works require multiple conductors performing separate ensembles performing simultaneously! He was an absolute genius, even if his music was not understandable. He was eventually recognized for his work, but not till 1947 when he won a Pulitzer prize.

Many composers in the 20th century continued with the nationalism of the 19th century and also incorporated "folk" music into their compositions:

American Aaron Copland "HoeDown" (Yes, its the song from the Beef Commercial)

Charles Ive's "Putnam's Camp" (This piece is supposed to be the sound of several marching bands converging on the same spot as they played different popular patriotic sounds in the town square).

British Composer Benjamin Britten "Frank Bridge Variations"

Cuban Composer Tania Leon "Tumbao"

African-American Composer William Grant Still "Afro-American Symphony"

Each of these composers incorporated music from their homeland and culture into their compositions.


Composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass borrowed musical ideas from the Far East. This gave birth to what is called minimalism in music. Minimalism involved taking small musical and rhythmic ideas and repeating them over and over again. There is less concern for harmony or even melody, and more concern regarding the rhythmic lines.

Terry Riley, "In C"

This work consists of twenty or so melodic figures written in the key of C. The performers chose which figures that they wanted to play and then repeated several times. As you can hear, its a bit repetitive.

Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi

Einstein on the Beach

Chance Music & Experimental Music

John Cage
Imaginary Landscape for 12 radios


Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman

Neo Classicism

Sonate pour harpe - Germaine Tailleferre
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