Picasso - Three Musicians (1921)


The 20th century was a period of rapid changes in which several musical styles coexisted. The development of recording systems and modern media made it easier to spread this variety of styles.
- Late 19th century: Postromanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, etc.
- First half of 20th century: Futurism, Dadaism, Dodecaphonism, Neoclassicism.
- Second half of 20th century: Serialism, Musique concrète, Electronic music, Electroacustic music, Stochastic music, Aleatoric music, Minimalism.

  • Rhythm: it was irregular, varied and unpredictable, with the presence of polyrhythms and syncopation.
  • Melody: it was complex, abstract and difficult to remember.
  • Texture: polyphony and counterpoint were explored and new textures appeared: micropolyphony, pointillism…
  • Form: traditional structures were broken up and recreated using non-Western musical techniques.
  • Timbre: the orchestra increased in size and timbre. New instruments were created: theremin, synthesizer... and traditional instruments were used in experimental ways to provide different timbres. Any sound source is accepted.
  • Musical notation: it became more abstract and experimental by using new symbols, e.g. graphic notation.
Example of graphic notation:
Hans-Christoph Steiner - Solitude

Pierre Henry - Psyché Rock


  • Postromanticism: some composers continued to write in a style which was basically Romantic, such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams in England, Rachmaninoff in Russia, Richard Strauss in Germany, Sibelius in Finland and Puccini in Italy.

Two movements related to Romanticism were developed (Impressionism, Expressionism).

  • Impressionism: it was a French movement, related with the symbolist poetry and impressionist painting. These composers searched for the pleasure of sounds by means of faded melodies, free chords, blurred tonality and a great timbric color. They chose instruments and chords just for the sound that they make. Main composers were Debussy and Ravel.
  • Expressionism: it was a German movement, featured by the expression of the human soul in a very harsh and pessimistic way. They used constant dissonances, atonal music and a recited singing called "Sprechgesang". Main composer was Schoenberg.
  • New sonority: Stravinsky began a new path with works as The Rite of Spring, which was written for the Russian Ballets directed by Diaghilev. When it was premiered it caused a scandal due to its violent rhythms, dissonances and a bold choreography by Nijinsky.
Puccini - Turandot. Nessun dorma
Debussy - Clair de lune
Schoenberg - Pierrot Lunaire
Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring


First avant-garde movements (Futurism, Dadaism, Dodecaphonism) broke with traditional music. Many composers felt that the tonal system had been used for so long that it was time to try something different.
  • Futurism: it was a brief movement born in Italy. It introduced noise and machines from modern societies in music. Main composers were Russolo, Varèse (Ionisation) and Honnegger.
  • Dadaism: it was a brief movement mainly developed in Germany, France and USA. It rejected all established forms of art. It anticipated later movements like aleatoric music. Kurt Schwitters stands out.
  • Dodecaphonism: it was a composition technique created by Schoenberg in 1923. It used the twelve notes of the chromatic scale placed in rows, without any relationship between them. Every note is as important as the rest. These rows can be presented in three formation types: retrograde (backwards), inversion (mirror-like) or retrograde-inversion. Main composers were Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern.
  • Neoclassicism: it was born in the 1920s as a reaction against Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism. It meant a return to the formal clarity of Baroque and Classicism; and a rejection of the expressive conception of music of Romanticism. They wanted to create pleasant and easy-to-listen music. They recovered tonality and they introduced influences from jazz and music-hall. They used parody and humor. Main composers were Satie (Gymnopédies), Hindemith, Kurt Weill and Carl Orff.
Varèse - Ionisation
Kurt Schwitters - Ursonate
Webern - Variations op. 27 n.º 1
Satie - Gymnopédie n.º 1


New avant-garde movements (Serialism, Musique concrète, Electronic music, etc.) found new languages by widening the concept of music and using technologies.
  • Serialism / Integral Serialism: it applied the concept of dodecaphonic series to all parameters of sound and not just the pitch. Main composers were Messiaen and Boulez.
  • Musique concrète: it is connected with Futurism. It used any sound or noise taken from reality. These sounds are tape-recorded and manipulated in a laboratory. There are no performers or scores because the work is shown in a recording. Main composers were Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry.
    The modification of sound in a laboratory can be carried out in two ways:
    - Manipulating the tape: changing the speed, reversing the direction, mixing different tapes, etc.
    - Electronically modifying sounds: changing the pitch or timbre by filtering frequencies, applying effects, etc.
  • Electronic music: it is completely made in a laboratory, in which sounds are created, processed and recorded electronically. Performers and scores are also eliminated. Main representatives were Maderna and Berio.
  • Electroacustic music: it is a combination of musique concrète (recorded and manipulated natural sounds) and electronic music (purely electronic sounds). Main representative was Stockhausen.
Messiaen -
Mode de valeurs et d'intensités

Pierre Henry -
Variations pour une porte et un soupir

(Musique concrète)
Bruno Maderna - Notturno
(Electronic music)
Stockhausen - Song of the Youth
(Electroacustic music)

  • Stochastic music: it used computers. It used algorithmic composition, statistical and mathematical calculations, in order to generate all the details of the piece. Main representative was Xenakis.
  • Aleatoric music: it depends on chance and the freedom of the performer. Composers didn’t write a finished piece, they relied on the performer’s independence to turn each performance into a unique piece. Main representative was John Cage (4’33).
  • Minimalism: it was born in the 1960s as a reaction against music that had become too complicated for people to understand. This music is based around a simple idea which repeats itself again and again but gradually changes. Main composers were Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and John Cage.
Xenakis - Metastasis
(Stochastic music)
John Cage - 4'33
(Aleatoric music)
Steve Reich - Clapping Music