MUS 212 Study Guide N (Chapter 15)

Twentieth-Century Music ...

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  1. Contemporary Period:  Concurrent with the surge of Post-Romantic and Impressionistic music, several newer and quite different styles began to surface, which are generally grouped together as contemporary music.  Composers at the forefront of this movement were:  Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Charles Ives (1874-1954), Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Igor Stravinsky (1882- 1971).
  • Some composers maintained tertian structures, but abandoned functional harmony. Others experimented with chords constructed in 4ths or 5ths, or combinations of several intervals.  Some preserved tonality while others favored atonality.  Some experimented with dividing the octave into more than 12 different pitches per octave, resulting in the development of microtonal systems.
  1. Primitivism:  Provided a contrast to the refined music of composers such as Debussy and Ravel.  Rhythm was the primary structural element of this music.  Driving rhythms were combined with simple and clearly defined melodies that operated within a narrow pitch range.  Sharp percussive effects with thick chords and much parallel movement typified the style.  (Stravinsky, Bartok).
  1. Neoclassicism:  The music sought to return to the classical values of symmetry and balance while maintaining the newer tonal materials of the 20th century.  (Hindemith, Stravinsky).

Characteristics of 20th-Century Music


  1. Modal derivations are common.  Usually a mode is merely suggested, rather than featured.  Fragments of more than one mode may be used.
  • The example on p. 386 indicates the use of G Dorian (G A Bb C D E F G) as well as Bb Lydian (Bb C D E F G A Bb).  Note that these "relative modes" use the same scale tones, just as Bb major and G minor are relative.
  • Simultaneous use of two modes is referred to as bimodality or dual modality.
  1. Nontonal Melodic Lines:
  • 20th-century melodic writing often is not based on any traditional scale constructions or any system of keys and their traditional relationships.  Often melodies are chromatic with only slight implications of tonal construction.
  • 20th-century practice allows melodic doubling at any interval.  In that the secondary melodic line does not have to conform to the "key" of the primary line, a line may be doubled at a fixed interval which allows cross relations.  E.g., an F# in the primary line may occur as an F-natural in the secondary line.

Meter and Rhythm

  1. The regularly recurring accents and measure lengths typical of the common practice period are still found in much of the music written since 1900.  A number of new trends may be noted, however.
  • The degree to which syncopation or displaced accents is exploited in some compositions may create a feeling of mixed meters.
  • In some compositions, composers have returned to principles of rhythmic and metric structures found in 16th-century compositions by avoiding a meter signature and bar lines altogether.
  • 20th-century music makes extensive use of irregular metric structures, which is usually noted in one of two ways:

    A single time signature precedes regularly recurring bar lines, with the actual metrical accents to be determined by the performer.  See p. 392 for illustration.

    Or, the meter changes are shown as successive changes in actual time signatures.

  1. New meter signatures are common in 20th-century music.  Besides the numerators 5 and 7 appearing in time signatures, almost any number may appear.
  • Also, various designations for alternating meters or irregular groupings within the measure are common:
    3    2
    4 + 4
  • Fractional meters are even possible:


  1. Polymeter:  The use of two or more meters simultaneously has been used by many composers.
  1. Jazz rhythmic patterns have been incorporated into 20th-century art music by some composers. See pp. 396-397.


  1. A multitude of new chordal combinations have been utilized in the 20th century.
  • Modal melodies may be harmonized with chords of traditional construction.
  • Superimposed triads (Polychords), consisting of two or more triads, 7th chords or other structures are sounded simultaneously and spaced far enough apart to make each recognizable as a separate entity.
  • Polytonality:  Use of two or more tonalities at the same time.  Use of two tonalities simultaneously is often called bitonality.
  1. Other chord types:
  • Both 7th chords and chords built in 7ths occur.
  • Secundal harmonies (chords built in 2nds) occur.
  1. Pandiatonicism:  Use of the tones of a diatonic scale in such a way that each tone is stripped of its traditional function in the key.  Tonal basis:
  • Absence of functional harmony,
  • Use of all seven tones,
  • Thick harmonies,
  • No chromaticism.
  1. Shifted Tonality:  Sudden change of tonality without preparation.
  1. Free Tonality:
  • No conventional mode or key is used,
  • A clear tonal center is present,
  • Any combination of the 12 tones may be used,
  • Traditional functioning of the diatonic tones of a key based on that same tonal center is minimized or avoided entirely,
  • Dominant-tonic relationship of key-centered tonality is absent.
  1. Quartal/quintal Chords:  Common in 20th-century music.

Analysis of 20th-century music:  The diversity of styles of music of this period resists analysis using any single system.  Several systems have been devised, but none appear to be perfectly suited to all styles of music.  Some of these systems will be discussed in 3rd-year Form and Analysis, along with 12-tone music.

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