Contemporary Music – Definition, Styles and Examples

It gives me great pleasure to officially begin running my own music portal online and share my knowledge of music with you. I encourage you to visit this website weekly, as there will always be fresh content that will provide you with great value. So, what I believe would be a great place to start is contemporary music. What comes to your mind when someone mentions contemporary music? Do you think of difficult and strange music? Pop, rock or film music? Or maybe something completely different?

If classical music is right up your alley, you most likely associate contemporary music with challenging music consisting of dissonances and strange sounds. Meanwhile, if you can’t spend a day without enjoying some music on the radio, you’re probably thinking of some kind of pop music. Am I right?

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Contemporary classical music can be understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s to early 1990s…However, the term may also be employed in a broader sense to refer to all post-1945 musical forms.

My own explanation of contemporary music

If I had to choose a time period, I would agree with the second part of the definition on Wikipedia. I also think that a good term for the type of music I’m referring to would be art music. It’s essentially a type of music that appears in the form of a written notation in a score. Here are some of the most common musical styles, pieces and contemporary music composers for each style.

12-tone technique

Here, the composer arranges the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in such a manner that none of the notes are repeated before all the other ones have been played. It’s more or less serialism in music.

Variations for Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg. This is one of the most popular twelve-tone compositions. You might be surprised by how romantic it sounds!

Related composers

  • Anton Webern
  • Alban Berg

Serial music

This music consists of various carefully organized series of either notes, chords, rhythms or other musical matters. Some pieces have aleatoric elements such as pitch or rhythm. Serial music is essentially a technique that composers use to escape the romantic ideal.

Le Marteau Sans Maоtre, Pierre Boulez. Many consider this piece a milestone in the history of music. Personally, I think it sounds, in many ways, just like the contemporary music that people would mock nowadays. It’s basically a lot of “anti-romantic” sounds like short burst and pling-plong sounds, and almost over-expressive melodies.

Related composers

  • Karl-Heinz Stockhausen
  • Luigi Nono

Minimal music

Minimal music is essentially a type of music where the composer is using short fragments, melodies, rhythms and other materials to create a pattern that gradually changes during its run. I will soon write more about minimal music.

Eight Lines (Octet), Steve Reich. A perfect example of minimal music.

Related composers

    • Philip Glass
    • Arvo Pärt

Spectral music

Developed in France during the 1970s. The composer uses a computer to analyze the overtone spectra of an acoustic or electronic sound. Then, they use that output to create a new piece of music.

Partiels, Gèrard Grisey. This piece is based on the analysis of a trombone’s low E. Listen to it and pay attention to how it moves between electronic and acoustic tones. Most listeners would consider this “new territory”.

Related composers

  • Tristan Murail
  • Kaija Saariaho

Electroacoustic music (EAM)

Back when electronic music was just getting started, there were two conflicting schools of thought. One of them was the Paris-based studio, creating music out of pre-recorded sounds called Musique Concrète. Meanwhile, the other school was in Cologne, focusing on creating synthetic sounds in the studio.

Gesang der Jünglinge, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. This piece is a great example of combining electronic and pre-recorded sounds.

Other notable composers today

  • Eric Whitacre
  • Thomas Adès
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