Modern Period

The Music Room
To Band Pages


Modern Period
1900 - present
Listen to Piece for Piano by Schoenberg to hear an example of atonal music.

Learn about Styles of 20th Century Art or visit the Museum of Modern Art.


This 1938 portrait by Pablo Picasso entitled Head of Marie-Therese  represents visually what composers were doing with their music.  Picasso was experimenting with new forms, techniques and styles of painting. Many artists and composers of his time were also experimenting with new forms and styles. 

This painting is broken down into geometric shapes like squares, triangles, and circles.  The artist sees his subject moving rather than sitting still.  This style of painting is called Cubism.  Other styles of modern painting include Surrealism, Pop Art, and Impressionism

Head of Marie-Therese, 1938.  [Online Image]  Available,  
March 14, 2002.  

Music of the 20th century broke free of the styles and traditions of the previous periods. Composers explored different ways to produce sound.  Rhythmic patterns became much more free, often changing frequently in a piece.  Melody was becoming more dissonant--harsher--moving by leaps rather than steps.  Harmony was also becoming more dissonantPolytonality--the playing together of two keys at once--was occurring more frequently.  Battle lines were drawn between tonal and atonal music.  

Major/minor tonality was giving way to atonal--or twelve tone-- music.  Composers during the early 20th century also called this serial music.  They would play 12 different tones in a certain order, then repeat this 12-tone pattern by turning the notes upside-down or playing it backwards.    This was music without a tonal center.  Composers of serial music include Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.   

The Rite of Spring (1913) by Igor Stravinsky launched the beginning of modern music.  It caused a riot at its first performance because the dancing and music were nothing like the audience was used to seeing or hearing. Today it is considered one of the greatest musical works of the 20th century.  

No single style of music dominated the 20th century.  African Americans made significant contributions to American and world music and were finally being recognized for their important contributions.  Jazz was born in America and was having a huge impact all over the world.  Nationalism was still an important influence in the first half of the century.  Nationalistic music told the listener where the music was from.  

Probably the most important development in 20th century music was popular music.  This included rock 'n roll, folk, country and western, and rhythm and blues.      

Aleatoric music--also called chance music--is unpredictable.  Composers like John Cage put bolts and nuts onto piano strings to make the sound unusual. 

To learn more about 20th century music, click here.

To top of page

Things to Think About

1.  What does it mean to improvise?  Can you do it?  

2.  Visit the Museum of Modern Art and find an example of modern art that you really like. Tell a classmate why you like it.  

3.  To learn how to paint in the 20th Century Style, click here.  

4.  How have electronics and computers changed the way music is made?  

5.  What musicians or musical styles will still be around 100 years from now?  List your reasons.  What won't be around 100 years from now? 

6. How has instant communication changed music?  Is world music becoming more or less important?   

7.  Nationalistic music tells the listener where the music is from.  It helps define a country's personality.  Will Nationalistic music become more or less important to countries in the future? 

To top of page



Rock and Roll
Military Circus Jazz
Musical Theater
Soul Latin Rap
Reggae Alternative Rockabilly
Rythm and Blues
Bluegrass Gospel Instrumental
Country and Western



BreBru.Com Extra Information Techonology HTML