The 20th Century Music Period: An Overview

Written by Dan Farrant
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All the Western classical music periods up until the turn of the 20th century had dominating styles and conventions. Composers tended to stick to these and lots of the music composed during that time had a similar ‘sound‘. But, the 20th century saw composers start to escape from these broad traditions of the era and classical music branched off into lots of different sub-movements.

This article will investigate the different strands of the classical music of the 20th Century, the composers who contributed to them and some of their key pieces. We’ll take a look at impressionism, modernism and atonalism, electronic music and minimalism, and the influences that jazz and folk had upon classical music, as well the impact caused by war and political upheaval. We’ll also see that new and exciting classical music continues to be created in the 21st Century.

Transitioning from the Romantic Period

The 20th century period of music, as its name suggests, began around 1900.

It is the last of the six periods of classical music eras and comes after the romantic era that ended around 1910AD.

By the end of the Romantic period, classical music had reached something of a turning point, with many conventions and structures having essentially remained in place since the Baroque era of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Composers began to reject these traditions in different ways in the 20th Century, creating a broad range of totally new and often radical music.

As a result, there is no regonizable unified sound to the music of this period, and it is, in general, much more stylistically divergent than the preceding eras of Western art music.

20th Century Movements

As we mentioned earlier, the 20th century isn’t made up of one style but actually several different movements that were popular with different composers and at different points throughout the 20th century.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of these movements and the composers that lead the way in developing them.


Impressionism was a movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in both art and music, which focused on mood and atmosphere.

Orchestral works by the French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy used timbre (more on timbre in music here), ambiguous tonality, and unusual scales to suggest color.

It was also intended to be charming and sensuous, in contrast to the heavy, deeply serious music made in the late Romantic period by German composers like Richard Wagner.

Debussy’s composition “La Mer” depicts the sea, although he actually rejected the impressionist label:

Claude Debussy – ‘La Mer’

Impressionist painters like Claude Monet focused on portraying light and movement rather than realistically recreating the minute details of objects.

In a sort of parallel to this, Debussy and Ravel rejected the tension and release of traditional cadence-based harmony in favor of tonality that was often more static, remaining within a mode like the whole tone scale, for example, for extended periods.

Modernism and Atonalism

The Common Practice era (which used a tonal system based on key centers and standard chord progressions, as well as structures like sonata form) had been in place since the Baroque period, and by the 20th Century, there was a feeling that late Romantic composers like Wagner and Richard Strauss had done everything that could be done within this framework.

Lots of music composed in the 20th Century did away with these rules, and the modernist movement did so in a particularly extreme way, in keeping with its ethos of rejecting tradition and embracing individuality.

One of the key figures of the modernist movement was Arnold Shoenberg, who pioneered atonalism in the 1920s.

This rather dissonant-sounding music dispenses with traditional harmonic function and lacks a key center.

He also experimented with 12-tone music, which is based on a tone row made up of all 12 notes from the chromatic scale in a given order, with all 12 given more or less equal importance, and then manipulated in various structured ways.

Here is one of his piano pieces:

‘Suite for Piano, Op. 25’ by Arnold Schoenberg

His students Alban Berg and Anton Webern developed this approach, which is sometimes referred to as serialism, and the three Austrian composers are collectively known as the Second Viennese School (with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven being the First Viennese School).

Elsewhere, Russian composer Igor Stravinksy’s use of rhythm was highly innovative, utilizing frequently shifting time signatures.

This is particularly evident in his revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring, which caused quite a stir when it was first performed in 1913:

Igor Stravinsky – ‘The Rite of Spring’

War and Political Upheaval

With two World Wars, the 20th Century was a time of major social and political change, and it was inevitable that this would have an impact on the arts.

Working in Stalinist Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich was forced to scale back his modernism in favor of a more populist, Romantic-inspired style in his symphonic works that was acceptable to the authorities, yet remained highly creative, while his chamber works display more overtly modernist characteristics.

Perhaps partly in response to the trauma of the First World War, the interwar years saw a return to more ordered art in general, with a focus on structure and emotional restraint.

In music, this was manifested in Neoclassicism, a movement that took influence from the Classical period.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony exemplify this as pieces that put a 20th Century twist on the stylings of 17th and 18th Century music.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Eugeniusz Penderecki are examples of pieces that reflect upon the horrors of the Second World War.

Jazz and Ethnic Folk Influences

Jazz, which was created by African Americans, was arguably the biggest musical development of the 20th Century.

The USA was now a force to be reckoned with in the world of classical composition for the first time, and a number of American composers looked towards the artform for inspiration, including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and George Gerswhin.

The latter’s Rhapsody in Blue begins with an instantly recognisable clarinet glissando and makes frequent use of the blues scale:
‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – George Gershwin

Non-American composers also took inspiration from jazz: Frenchman Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde was inspired by the music he heard in Harlem, New York, while Englishman Malcolm Arnold composed a concerto for swing clarinettist Benny Goodman.

Composers also continued to incorporate their native folk music in their work, which was a tradition that began in the Romantic period.

Béla Bartók collected Hungarian folk tunes, which provided inspiration for his own work, while Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an English Folk Song Suite.

Minimalism and Use of Electronics and Technology

Starting in the 1960s, the minimalist school focused on using minimal musical material and making use of repetitive patterns, loops and electronic techniques, reflecting technological advances of the day.

This music was generally more consonant-sounding and less overtly challenging than the modernist school, and composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich became incredibly popular:

‘Music for 18 Musicians’ by Steve Reich

Musique concrete also utilised electronics.

By taking recorded sounds – of instruments, the human voice or the natural environment, for example – composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen would manipulate these raw materials and turn them into sort of musical collages.

Aleatoric Music and Experimentalism

As the 20th Century continued, people came up with various inventive ways of challenging the very meaning of composition.

Aleatoric music is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance.

Often this means that the performer gets to determine how part of the piece should be played, perhaps with a freely improvised section.

Henry Cowell’s Mosaic Quartet allows the players to play fragments of the music in various different sequences, meaning that the piece can sound different each time it is performed.

American composer John Cage used aleatoric elements in his music, in addition to a pioneering approach to instrumentation.

He made use of a prepared piano, which has objects placed on or between the strings to alter its sound, often making it more percussive.

Meanwhile, his 4’33” – in which the performers do nothing except be present for four minutes and 33 seconds, meaning that the piece is actually composed of the sounds and atmosphere in the environment – is one of the most famous and controversial works of the modern era.

Elsewhere, composers like Charles Ives made use of microtones.

These are notes that are smaller than the semitones we generally use.

We are not used to hearing them, so they sound dissonant and out of tune to our ears, but they actually require instruments to be tuned incredibly precisely.

Classical Music in the 21st Century

Important classical music continues to be made in the present day in a range of styles.

The internet has made music more accessible, making it easier for sub-genres to cross-pollinate and influence each other more easily.

Music and notation software have also revolutionised the ways in which we make music.

Film music has become incredibly popular as an artform, and composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer have helped bring classical-influenced music to a wider audience.


So that concludes our look at the classical music of the 20th Century.

We have learned about impressionism, modernism, minimalism and aleatory, and about how war, politics and technology influenced music, as composers tore up the rules that were established in previous centuries.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about and listening to some of this radical and hugely varied music.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.