Twentieth Century Music

Music of the 20th century is notable for the advent of a wide range of genres and style and for the technical innovations in recording and playing music. Means of recording and broadcasting granted access to music to many more people, which made it possible for musicians to become popular in different countries and become celebrities.

At the beginning of the century, music was still largely dominated by the style that had been dominant for the previous 200 years, classical music, performed in concert halls and chambers often by large-scale orchestras. The end of the 19th century had seen a rise in more low-brow, popular entertainment in Vaudeville theaters in America and Music Halls in England, where musicians, especially singers, would perform more accessible songs which achieved popularity outside the social elite.

For classical music, Arnold Shoenberg marked a change in style of composition which was to influence composers of his generation possibilities for experimenting. These included Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) who started experimenting with form and tonality.

Even greater development occurred in popular, or pop music. One of the most influential styles is blues, which originated in African-American communities and evolved from their spirituals, which first appeared in the late 19th century but reached the peak of its popularity after World War I and later, with the transition to electronic, urban blues. Blues is characterized by the use of the blue notes, which are neither major, nor minor and the most common 12-bar blues chord progression. Blues is typically performed by a guitar, a piano and a brass section. Prominent names include the Dixieland Blues Band, Mamie Smith, and after World War II, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry and B.B. King. Many popular music genres, such as jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll were influenced by the blues.

The term jazz (originally jass) appeared in 1915 in Chicago. Jazz often employs improvisation and uses syncopation, polyrhythms and the swung note. It is often played on piano and brass instruments, typically the trumpet or saxophone. Jazz thrived in the 1920s and 1930s in U.S., when it was regarded immoral and threatening social values. A large variety of sub-genres evolved form jazz, for example swing, bebop, fusion, funk, bossa nova and mambo. The most famous jazz performers include Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Rock and Roll is another genre that in its turn caused the appearance of many others. It appeared in the U.S. in the early 1950s and combined influences from blues, country music and jazz. It involved extensive use of electric guitars and bass guitars and a drum kit. Elvis Presley (1935-1977) is generally accepted as the first musician to have acquired the status of an international superstar and sex symbol, helped by his music being broadcast on radio stations, appearances in Hollywood movies, and multi-million dollar sales of his records in various formats. Presley's music and his on-stage performances were seen by some contemporary critics as obscene, yet more than three decades after his death, his influence remained profound.

Among those inspired to take up music by some of Presley's records in the late 1950s were four teenagers from Liverpool, England: John Lennon (1940-1980), Paul McCartney (born 1942), George Harrison (1943-2001) and Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey in 1940), who formed a group they called The Beatles, whose music dominated record sales on both sides of the Atlantic, and who influenced fashion and the political outlook for many youngsters through the 1960s and the early 1970s. Other important rock bands formed during the 1960s and 1970s included Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Who, The Rolling Stones. Groups such as AC/DC transformed Rock and Roll into another form, Hard Rock, which later evolved into progressive rock, heavy metal, punk and grunge. Each genre can be further subdivided.

By the 1980s, pop music had come to be regarded as a "soft," undemanding genre of its own, which includes dance music, disco, hip hop, Latin and electronic. Innovations in retailing music, such as the CD and digital formats like the MP3 and MP4 made music ever more accessible to growing global markets, where much promotional work was done through television, including specialist TV stations such as MTV, first broadcast in 1981. Artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue owe much of their popularity to music videos.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America
Robert P. Morgan.
W. W. Norton, 1991
Musical Trends in the 20th Century
Norman Demuth.
Rockliff Publishing, 1975
An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music
Peter S. Hansen.
Allyn and Bacon, 1961
A History of Western Music
Donald Jay Grout; Claude V. Palisca.
W. W. Norton, 2001 (6th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 20 "The European Mainstream in the Twentieth Century," Chap. 21 "Atonality, Serialism, and Recent Developments in Twentieth-Century Europe," and Chap. 22 "The American Twentieth Century"
European Music in the Twentieth Century
Howard Hartog.
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957
Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook
Larry Sitsky.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Mainstream Music of Early Twentieth Century America: The Composers, Their Times, and Their Works
Nicholas E. Tawa.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Writings on Music, 1965-2000
Steve Reich; Paul Hillier.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Twentieth-Century Chamber Music
James McCalla.
Routledge, 2003
Exploring Twentieth-Century Vocal Music: A Practical Guide to Innovations in Performance and Repertoire
Sharon Mabry.
Oxford University Press, 2002
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