Modern classical music is easy to describe, but not always easy to listen to. The number one rule of modern classical music is this:

There are no rules!

Modern classical music is about breaking rules. It’s about being different. Whatever you think music should sound like, I am sure there is some modern classical music that doesn’t sound like that at all!!

Do you think music should have a tune? Well there is lots of modern classical music that doesn’t have a tune.

Do you think music should be played on a music instrument? Well there is lots of modern classical music that is played on things that aren’t very ‘musical’ at all! Watch this video to see a piece of music written for a typewriter (this is what people used to type on before computers were around)!

‘The Typewriter’ by Leroy Anderson

And I guess everyone thinks music should at least make some sort of sound. Well there is actually a real piece of music that makes no sound at all!!! It is called 4’33. This is because it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence! If you don’t believe me, watch this video! (Maybe I should try this one at a school assembly sometime!!)

4’33 by John Cage

Many people say the first piece of modern music was Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) by Claude Debussy (see the Debussy page for a video of part of this). It was written in 1894.

However, modern music didn’t really get going until about 1910. Two composers are responsible for this. They are:

Both of these composers wrote a piece of music around 1910 that was very different from anything before. Stravinsky’s was a ballet called Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and appeared in 1913 (see the Stravinsky page for a video of part of this). And Schoenberg’s was his String Quartet No. 2 of 1908 (you can hear part of this on the Schoenberg page).

In both cases audiences were shocked. Stravinsky’s music even caused a riot. The audience started fighting and the police had to come and sort it out. Who said classical music was boring!!

Many grown-ups will tell you that most modern classical is rubbish. But I would ignore them and find out for yourself. Don’t be put off by strange sounds. Think of it as an adventure into sounds you’ve never dreamed of.

Children are more than capable of understanding modern music. It’s true! Let me tell you a story about the time I learnt this lesson. A couple of years ago I saw a notice about an opera written for children. So I took my daughter along. It was her first opera. When it started I was surprised to hear that the music was very modern indeed. There were no tunes at all. I was worried. I thought my daughter would hate it. When the interval came I looked at my daughter and her asked what she thought of it. I was completely surprised by her answer. She could hardly speak. She was so excited. She said it was the best thing she had ever seen. And she still says that.

So I learnt my lesson. And you can too.

Perhaps you still don’t believe me that modern music is for kids? Well, think about movies. Movies have all sorts of music. Most people are not even aware of it. Next time you see that baddy coming in a movie, listen carefully to the music. The music will be scary. If it’s a recent movie, the music will probably be very modern indeed. There will be no tune, no nice sounds. In fact, it will sound quite horrible. But it will certainly be scary. And you will understand this. You will certainly understand that the music is scary. And you will know from the music that the baddy is coming.

So have fun exploring modern music. There is an exciting world of sound just waiting to be discovered! Try this video for a start. It’s part of Messiaen’s Turangalia Symphony. Just let the strange and amazing sounds wash over you!

Part of Messiaen’s ‘Turangalia Symphony’

Picture credits:
  1. An example of modern art. This painting is called ‘Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin’ and was painted in 1919 by Juan Gris. The image is in the public doman. Click here for the source of this image, along with the relevant copyright information.
Video credits:
  1. Leroy Anderson Typewriter. L’orchestre à cordes de Baie-Comeau interprete The Typewriter de Leroy Anderson. Théâtre de Baie-Comeau le 1er juin 2008.
  2. John Cage: 4’33” for piano (1952). … the master’s “silent piece”
    1. tacet
    2. tacet
    3. tacet
    Armin Fuchs – piano.
  3. Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie / Simon Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker. Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie / Sir Simon Rattle, conductor · Berliner Philharmoniker · Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano · Tristan Murail, ondes Martenot / Recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie, 11 September 2008.