What Is Neoclassicism In Music? An Overview

Written by Dan Farrant
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During the early 20th century, neoclassicism was one of the most important styles in music. The era is characterized by a return to traditional musical forms and instruments with an increased emphasis on formal compositional techniques.

This article will examine the neoclassicism era of music during the 20th century music era and explore how contemporary music expresses its influence today. We’ll explore the history of neoclassic music, review various musical theories and stylistic elements developed at the time, and learn about some noteworthy neoclassic composers.

We hope you’ll leave this article with a newfound appreciation of neoclassic music and what it means for musicians today.

When Was the Neoclassic Music Era?

After the expressionist period’s chaotic emotional dissonance, composers sought to reconcile music with traditional forms.

The 20-year interwar period from the end of World War I in 1918 to the beginning of World War II in 1939 provided a backdrop for this renewed call to order and traditional musical theories.

Neoclassicism was an effort to return to the basics, stripping away all that is superfluous.

Composers sought to create a purer form of music to express their ideas more clearly and with greater ease than before.

Neoclassical then refers to any compositional styles following this brief, especially between 1917 to 1930.

Many refer specifically to works by Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger or Dmitri Shostakovich.

These forms can be seen as reactions against tendencies present during late romanticism when musical composition became progressively complex; neoclassicism believes that it’s possible for art not only to imitate life but also to influence it.

What Was the Neoclassic Style in Music?

Musicians working during the neoclassical period often used formal compositional techniques that reflected a desire for order and control.

They also drew on past musical styles, including Baroque forms like fugues and techniques such as counterpoint to create their pieces.

Neoclassicism emerged as new ideas about how music should be composed gained a foothold throughout Europe.

But it is not enough simply to describe neoclassicism by its return to tradition or attention to traditional theories.

The “Second Viennese School” (though it did not follow Schoenberg’s dodecaphony) developed concurrently with neoclassicism but independently from it.

Arnold Schoenberg’s emersion from expressionism into neoclassicism led composers of the time to virtually abandon their musical experiments with chaos and dissonance and adopt the order, safety, and beauty of classical music theory once more.

In form and thematic technique, neoclassical music often drew inspiration from musical themes of the 18th century, though the inspiring canon belonged as frequently to the Baroque and even earlier periods like the Classical period.

Neoclassical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev consciously referenced Baroque models when writing music in the neoclassical style.

New Musical Forms in Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism branched out into two distinct stylistic elements, French and German.

The two branches each created unique musical forms and adaptations of classic and baroque musical forms and interpretations.

At this time, neoclassicism in music was more of a trend than a proper musical movement.

Neoclassical distinction refers to any style influenced by classical music, whether the performer offers updated arrangements of established works by other composers or attempts to weave “purer” elements from the baroque, classical, romantic, impressionistic, or later 20th century musical styles.

Neoclassical music examines how this style emerged during a “period between two wars” and evolved into an anti-establishment movement that challenged many traditional musical ideas.

It emphasizes its origins in Russia, with Igor Stravinsky as its most prominent proponent and touches on Germany, where Paul Hindemith took it up.

Neoclassicists were not necessarily attracted to specific aspects of music such as counterpoint or Baroque forms; instead, they sought freedom from the rigidity of form and structure prevalent at the time by drawing inspiration from the work of composers like Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt.

Neoclassical music attempted to create a new musical language that departed from traditional tonality by drawing upon non-Western scales and chromaticism.

Order in the Neoclassic Era

Neoclassical music of the 20th century emphasized orderliness and structure.

In addition, the music was often heavily influenced by early classical forms.

The end of World War I inspired a period where artists and composers sought new styles different from those that had become stale over time.

Musical forms such as baroque dances became popular again among many musical genres.

When examining neoclassicism in music, it is essential to explore the term itself – what does “neoclassical” mean?

Neoclassicism refers to a style or movement during a specific era (in this case, the 20th century).

However, some more particular elements are associated with neoclassical compositions, which include harmony based on tonal centers rather than modality and an emphasis on balanced triadic melodies.

Notable Composers of the Neoclassic Era

During the 20th century, the neoclassic era started in Europe and quickly spread worldwide to such countries as United States, Russia, etc.

It was a time when music embraced a Greek or Roman influence as composers attempted to break from traditional tonality by using non-Western scales.

Neoclassicism wasn’t about specific forms but rather freedom from artistic rigidity that was prevalent at this time.

Many notable neoclassical musicians like Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith contributed to the development of a new musical language that used chromatic elements along with new musical arrangements to create modern interpretations of prior works.

Many other composers also developed new musical forms and used neoclassic aspects in their works during this period, for example:

Although his works included masterpieces that spanned many genres, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was known for his neoclassical music.

Sergei Prokofiev – ‘Symphony No. 1, Op. 25’

Maurice Ravel’s work is an example of neoclassical music that stemmed from impressionist influences.

During the neoclassic era, he was considered one of the best French composers.

Maurice Ravel

Eventually called the “Dean of American music” by his peers, American composer Aaron Copland was a fledgling composer during the early neoclassic era.

The folk music of America primarily influenced his “populist” music.

Aaron Copland – ‘Appalachian Spring,’ ‘The Tender Land: Suite,’ and ‘Fall River Legend’

Among the first American composers to gain international renown, Charles Ives wrote compositions inspired by hymns he heard as a child.

Though largely ignored during his early years as a composer, his later works were regarded as “American original” compositions.

Charles Ives – ‘Thoreau’

The French-born composer Edgard Varèse spent most of his working years in the United States and was acclaimed as one of the more experimental composers.

Varèse called his style “organized sound,” a term that later caught on regarding musical styles that emphasize rhythm and timbre.

Edgard Varèse – ‘Amériques’


In instrumentation, neoclassicism found a natural expression with instruments from the 18th century.

Wind instruments like the clarinet and brass horns often substituted for oboes, while string ensembles used lighter gauge strings to achieve period-appropriate texture as opposed to modern, thicker violin/viola strings that produce greater volume but sacrificed warmth.

This texture can be heard in Italian operatic works by Antonio Vivaldi, who employed flute and oboe instead of the traditional classical or baroque recorder in his operatic masterpiece “The Four Seasons.”

Instrumentation was also different from before as it included atonality which became more prominent after WWI ended when many artists felt that they needed to express themselves differently than what traditional tonal music had been offering up until then.

Electric keyboards and acoustic pianos played a significant role in neoclassic music, and strings featured prominently in neoclassic works, especially violin or viola with cellos doubling in bass parts.


Neoclassicism is a vital part of musical history because it reflected changing social values and political climates and how musicians wanted to share their views through artistry.

The neoclassical movement was a strong cultural force that changed Western art, literature, architecture, and society as a whole into something more individualistic than in earlier periods.

Now that you have learned more about neoclassicism in music, we hope that you can examine how different social values influenced artists at the time, why this period reflected changing political climates, and how composers tried to express their feelings about politics through their works by using various musical styles and instruments both new and old.

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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.