Composers and Styles That Defined 20th Century Music

Debussy playing the piano
João Carvalho/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Prior to and after World War II, the United States became a center of musical activity. Many composers from Europe moved to the US and some of them even became faculty members. Discover the music forms and styles, along with the composers and musicians, who defined 20th-century music. 

Music Forms and Styles of the 20th Century

  • 12-tone System: A term mainly attributed to Arnold Schoenberg, who wanted to eliminate the tonal center. He developed a technique called 12-tone system wherein all the 12 notes of the octave are of equal importance. The 12 notes are placed in a specific order called a "tone-row" or "tone-series," and no note is repeated within a row. This evoked music that felt anxious and unresolved.
  • Concert Music: Many composers combined jazz music elements with other music styles such as classical and blues. Music during this time also spoke of nationalistic fervor. Some of the composers whose works were greatly appreciated were George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), Aaron Copland (Rodeo) and Dmitry Shostakovich (The Golden Age).
  • Electronic Music: Composers of electronic music experimented with technology and how it affects certain aspects of music such as melody and rhythm.
  • Impressionistic: This term derived from the painter Monet, in the work, Impression, Sunrise. In music, it is applied to works of early 20th century composers such as Debussy. Debussy rejected the rules of tonality and created music that is pleasing to the ears as impressionist paintings are appealing to the eyes. This resulted in music that was relaxed and almost dreamlike.
  • Jazz: Jazz can be traced back to earlier African-American music styles. Jazz music is particularly notable for its improvisation, harmonic progressions, and syncopated (modified) rhythms.
  • Minimalism: This type of music was simple and featured patterns that were repeated and supported by a steady beat. The music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass were labeled as such.
  • New Romanticism: The movement began in eastern Europe and desired music that was expressive, haunting and mysterious, much like the music of the past. Composers who used this technique were George Crumb (Ancient Voices of Children) and Gyorgy Ligeti (Lux Aeterna), among others.
  • Neoclassical: A term applied to the music of early 20th century composers like Stravinsky which reflects the 18th-century music. Stravinsky's works, particularly after the highly acclaimed The Rite of Spring, did not emphasize tonality but felt restrained. Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev, the producer of the Ballet Rouse. His earlier works reflected influences from Debussy's dissonance and irregular rhythmic patterns.
  • Serialism: This was based on Schoenberg's 12-tone system, which was continued by his student Anton von Webern. Serialism was evident in the music of the 1950s and 60s but appreciation was limited to university professors and their students. Serialism used a strict musical formula that was difficult to play. Composers who used this technique were Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, to name a few.

Notable 20th Century Composers and Musicians

  • Bela Bartok: A Hungarian composer and renowned ethnomusicologist.
  • Alban Berg: An Austrian composer who adapted the atonal style, also referred to as the classicist of modern music.
  • Ernest Bloch: A Swiss composer of spiritual music.
  • John Cage: An American composer of the 20th century known for his innovative, avant-garde ideas of creating and appreciating music. He devised the "prepared piano."
  • Henry Cowell: The American composer, and one of the inventors of an electrical instrument called "rhythmicon", who wrote pieces wherein the musicians played the keys of a piano by striking it with their forearms or wrists and strumming or plucking the strings.
  • Edward Elgar: An English composer, who, according to Richard Strauss, was the "first English progressive musician."
  • Charles Ives: The first known composer of polytonal pieces.
  • Jean Sibelius: A Finnish composer, conductor, and teacher especially known for his orchestral works and symphonies.
  • Edgard Varese: One of the composers who experimented with music and technology. He wrote a piece for an orchestra composed of solely percussion instruments. He also experimented with taped music and electronic instruments.
  • Anton von Webern: An Austrian composer belonging to the 12-tone Viennese school.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: An English composer of nationalistic music.