The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part three

So, after the past two weeks we’ve worked our way all the way from 500 AD to the very beginning of the 20th century. It’s been a long ride with a lot of changes. Now it’s time to wrap up by looking at the wide variety of western music that we’ve had in the past 100 years. Some things have been calm and easily understood, and some things have been very peculiar.

We won’t try to cover everything, or even mention everyone. We’re just going to hit some of the broader ideas. And we’ll invent a few very broad headings to group some of them. Let’s start with…

Going “Retro”

Art always has a tendency to pay homage to earlier ideas. Perhaps the movement that goes the furthest back is Primitivism, in which prehistoric and non-western ideas are emulated. In music, the most prominent Primitivist composer was Igor Stravinsky, and especially his ballet suite Le sacre du printempts (The Rite of Spring). Its subject matter of primitive pagan celebrations and sacrifices is represented in powerful pulsing music.

Closer to recent times is the movement called Neo-Classicism. In this the ideas of the classical period (i.e. simplicity in harmony and easily defined melodic forms) is combined with a broader harmonic palette. Stravinsky worked in this style for a while, but the premiere neo-classical composer was Paul Hindemith.

At this point, it might be worth considering music that musicologists tend to overlook due to its general popularity: namely movie soundtrack music. Contemporary soundtrack composers are frequently called on to write music that helps set the tone for the movie it is accompanying. So you have people like Ennio Morricone writing sparse, folk-like music for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and then heavy, troubling full orchestrations for 1990’s Hamlet. Other composers in this vein are Elmer Bernstein, James Horner, and of course John Williams.

Finally, a couple Americans whose styles evoked earlier music; Aaron Copland’s compositions frequently made use of the types of folk melodies that can be found through America’s history. Usually, it was just meant to sound that way, but he did use direct quotes from time to time; most famously in his use of the Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring. The other is the rather strange music of Charles Ives (no relation to Burl). His music takes a polyphonic route, incorporating layer upon layer of recognizable American tune segments, usually in completely different tempos and keys simultaneously, to create a mass of confusion that sounds like several ensembles playing at once in competition with each other.

Changing Focus

For centuries upon centuries, the main focus of western music has been on melody and harmony working in unison. In the twentieth century, some composers started reconsidering that angle. This followed three main directions. Rhythm, tone quality, and new tonal structures.

Rhythm was already the primary focus of music from India, but in the twentieth century western composers started experimenting as well. Stravinsky was an early example, as was Béla Bartók. Eventually some composers abandoned structured rhythm altogether producing music that had no discernible rhythmic pattern.

Tone quality also became subject to experimentation. After all, there are only so many instruments, so how do you broaden the pallet in this way? One way is to have the instruments play in registers in which they are not typically heard. An example of this is the airy, lonely sound of the bassoon solo at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. By writing it high in the instrument’s register it sounds like a completely different instrument. Another method was to double instruments, combining their sounds into a whole new one. This is one of the hallmarks of Impressionist music like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; and Minimalist music like that of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Finally, there’s electronic music. Synthesizers have allowed composers to create sounds that are entirely new. Progressing from Moog synthesizers all the way to contemporary synthesizers that are easily played and almost infinitely versatile, today these are routinely thought of as popular music instruments, but the reality is that it was western music composers that first started using them.

And then there are alternate tonalities. As harmonies became more and more complex through history, this was probably inevitable. First a little simple music theory: a musical scale is typically thought of as eight pitches moving in steps and half steps from one octave to the next, at which the note names repeat. So a C scale starts on C and ends on C an octave higher. Slightly different is the chromatic scale, which is scale that hits all the half steps from octave to octave, twelve in all. The thirteenth pitch is the octave.

The most important change in tonality was twelve-tonal music. This music avoided putting the music in any sort of key by the expedience of using all of the twelve half step pitches equally throughout the piece. The composer would assemble an order of the twelve pitches. Then they would put together a chart showing the row, the same row transposed through all the twelve steps, the row inverted (if moving from one pitch in the row to the next involved going up three half steps, inverted it would go down three half steps instead), and the inverted row transposed through all the twelve steps. With that done, the composer would write his piece selecting one of these rows and going through all the pitches in the row in order, either following each other in order, or stacking several adjacent pitches together into a chord. The most prominent of these composers are Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.

…But Is It Really Music?

Alright, we’ve come all this way. It’s time to delve into that area where music and philosophy co-exist. The main form of this is the idea of “chance music”. This is handled in a variety of ways, from drawing things like instrumentation, pitches and rhythms from a hat, to doing nothing at all. Seriously.

The most prominent composer of this type was John Cage. Cage had studied Zen Buddhism, and had the notion of removing outward influences on the production of music. One such piece was Imaginary Landscape No. 4, written for 24 performers “playing” 12 radios. The score would indicate when radios would be turned on and off, when they would be tuned to different frequencies, and how loud they would be played. This resulted in a piece that would sound completely different at every performance, almost totally out of the control of the composer, performers or conductor. However, Cage himself regarded his most important work a piece titled 4′ 33″. It’s a three movement piece, the total of which comes to four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It can be performed by any musician or group of musicians on any instrument. Each movement consists of the performer sitting quietly and doing nothing for the indicated length of time the movement calls for. This may sound like the piece is 4′ 33″ of silence, but the reality is that Cage indicates the music consists of the ambient sounds of the performance space and audience for the length of time indicated. Many times this piece is performed ironically, with a bit of humor injected here and there, but the intent was serious.


*whew* Well, there you have it. I got my music degree way back in 1987, and I shudder to think what is being done now, at least experimentally. Perhaps at some point I’ll do some research and do an epilogue of sorts for these articles. Perhaps, but I think I’ll take a break from all this serious material for a couple weeks, and go back to doing something a bit more esoteric.

Now, where’s my aspirin?