Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Music: Trends and Timelines

Fin de siècle: 1900 to World War I

France: Debussy experiments with ambiguity and prolongation of dissonant chords, while Ravel uses free dissonances within a tonal context. Germany, Austria and Hungary: Mahler and Strauss write sumptuous romantic music in large forms with increasingly daring dissonances. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern progress from romanticism to atonality. Bartok explores folk music. Russia: Scriabin progresses from a Chopinist romanticism to a mystical atonality. Stravinsky progresses from classicism to a rhythmic primitivism, based on folk melodies and polytonality. England: Elgar follows the path of Mahler and Strauss. Italy: opera continues in the vein of Verdi. United States: Ives experiments with polyrhythmic polytonality.

World War I to the Great Depression

France: Stravinsky settles into neoclassicism. Ravel and “the Six” dabble in jazz but maintain a neoclassist approach. Germany: Schoenberg, Berg and Webern turn to serialism while Hindemith pursues extended tonality. Weill experiments with jazz. Hungary: Bartok experiments with abstract scales and mirror relationships. Russia: the Soviet state cracks down on modernism, and Russian culture is cut off from the outside world. America: composers travel to Europe for study.

The Great Depression to the End of World War II

Europe embroiled in hard times, then war. The Nazis exploit great German music, particularly Wagner and Beethoven, in the service of their war effort. Schoenberg, Hindemith, Weill, Stravinsky, Bartok, and many other composers move to the United States.

Post World War II to 1960

Sickened by memories of the past, music breaks into new directions. Messiaen exploits new abstract modes, then bird songs. Interest grows in serialism, particularly Webern. Serialism spreads throughout the West. Many European composers flirt with serialism, then branch off in multiple directions. In the West, cultural exchange resumes. The United States emerges as a major musical culture. In the U.S., classical music, and music composition, moves into universities. Electronic music emerges. John Cage becomes a sensation in Europe, introducing humor, chance and happenings. The cold war begins. The Soviet Union cracks down on modernism in the arts in Eastern Europe. Only Poland and, to a lesser extent, Hungary allow a bit of modernism (mainly because they have access to Western broadcasting). Cultural exchange still difficult and rare. “Western” musical cultures emerge in Japan and later South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

1960 to 1980

In the United States, serialism becomes a dominant force in music. Computer music and the synthesizer emerge. In Europe, music becomes compartmentalized into opposing fiefdoms. While nationalistic characteristics remain, usually a group’s greatest antagonists are within the same country rather than without. Public support remains at a high level, but public interest in new music begins to wane. At IRCAM in Paris, Boulez builds an institution devoted to technology and imports many ideas and personnel from America. In France, Xenakis develops stochastic music, and Spectral Music emerges.

1980 to 2000

In the United States, partly due to the cutting of music from school curricula, interest in classical music wanes. Public alienation from the complexity of new music produces a backlash, reflected in a “new romanticism,” minimalism, and new age music. In Europe, Ligeti strengthens a more traditional approach, nevertheless suffused with imagination and originality. Digital technology emerges, leading to CD players, samplers, effects devices, and the personal computer. Music notation software becomes widely adopted. Digital audio editors become widely used.


The internet begins to reach its full potential. “Western” musical culture emerges in China. Sampling instruments are embedded in music notation software. Max/MSP, a program enabling interaction between computers and live instruments, becomes widely used.