Jun 04

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Music; Part 7 – Modern Music


Modern Music  1910-the Present Day



The end of the Romantic Era began when some composers started to break away from the traditional forms of harmony which had been the mainstay of serious music since the time of Bach. Instead of using the major and minor scale systems as a basis for their compositions, some composers such as Debussy (1862-1918) experimented with other scales, such as the pentatonic scale and the whole tone scale.

Later, other composers were even more adventurous in breaking the rules, with innovations in form, instruments and tunings, amongst other things. The Modern era is defined as a time of experimentation. We are experiencing it right now, these are exciting times!


The pentatonic scale is a scale of only five notes (the major/minor scales have seven). It’s the equivalent of playing only the black notes on the piano, but it can be transposed into different keys. Starting on C, the pentatonic scale is C-D-E-G-A. ¬†Because the notes F and B are left out, it’s impossible to write a pentatonic melody which contains an interval of an augmented fourth (F-B), which is a dissonance. This makes pentatonic music sound particularly soothing and relaxing.

Debussy is the most famous composer who explored the pentatonic scale. A good example of its use is in his piece “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” (1910):

Debussy also liked the whole tone scale, which is a six note scale built on only tones (no semitones). If you start on C, a whole tone scale is C-D-E-F#-G#-A#. Because each note is equally spaced from its neighbours, there is no strong pull towards a tonic note. Other composers who used the whole tone scale are Messiaen (1908-1992) and Bartok (1881-1945). Here’s a particularly stirring performance of Bartok’s 5th string quartet (1934). Notice how the lack of a firm tonic makes the music sound very unsettled:


The composer Schoenberg (1874-1951) is synonymous with serial music, which is a method of composing which is really mathematical. Schoenberg perfected the technique of composing 12-tone serial music, (the American term “tone” means “note”, rather than the distance between say C-D). He would create a tone-row, which meant he wrote out each of the 12 unique semitones, and then would manipulate the row of notes in different ways, but always keeping them in the same order, to create a composition. Schoenberg’s music is certainly innovative, but is not everyone’s cup of tea. Here’s the first movement of Schoenberg’s piano concerto op.42 (1942):

Another twentieth century innovation which has proved hugely controversial was the “invention” of quartertones. A quartertone is half the size of a semitone, so there are 24 quarter tones in one octave. Obviously, writing music in quartertones also meant some new devices in music notation were necessary! This piece by Charles Ives (1874-1954) employs two pianos, one of which is tuned a quartertone lower, thus providing the “in-between” notes needed. If you’ve never listened to quartertone music before, it might sound out of tune – on the contrary, the pianos are tuned with impeccable accuracy, but you are hearing all the in-between notes which your ears are not used to! This is the second of three quartertone pieces Ives wrote in 1924:


The modern era has witnessed the invention of many new musical instruments, in particular there are many powered by electricity. Modern engineering techniques also mean that today’s instruments are generally more accurately tuned and cheaper to produce than before. The standard set up of the symphony orchestra has remained the same, but many composers call for more unusual instruments to be added in.

Modern times have seen composers get quite experimental with the “traditional” instruments they have to hand as well, and you can find a lot of music written for a “prepared” instrument. This means that a standard instrument like the piano has been altered physically in some way.

John Cage wrote his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano in the 1940s:

A Prepared Piano


Cage’s prepared pianos typically had nuts, bolts and bits of rubber stuck at strategic points in between the strings. Metal gadgets make the sound ring out more than usual, and rubber dulls the sound.


With modern music, anything goes. Modern music is unpopular with many people, who find it hard to understand or assume it is just random notes. However, most of it is not at all random, but is in fact a result of composers pushing boundaries as far as they will go. John Cage even went as far as challenging the concept of “music” as being about sound produced by musical instruments, with his infamous piece “4’33” which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. His point was there there is no real silence – in a performance of this work, we hear people making noises, chairs creaking, breathing, coughing and more – these are sounds which we normally don’t notice, and his piece is about focusing our attention on these small, every day details. Experience Cage’s “4’33” (1952) for yourself here:

That brings us to the end of this mini-series on the history of music – hope you enjoyed it! Why not test your memory by taking part in our fun Music History Quiz!



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