Is contemporary music even classical?

The 'discussion' below has been expanded from a presentation I gave on concepts/precepts in the  course 'Trandisciplinarity in the Arts' at the Sibelius Academy, fall 2016.  

My research project exists from the perspective that classical musicians should be playing new music. But is this assumption valid? Is contemporary music classical?  

What's In a Word

Classical music is popularly used to describe all western art music, beginning from the mid-16th century. But the term 'classical music' itself did not appear until the early 19th century, in 1836 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Since then, music historians have divided classical music into 'common practice period', defined as 1550-1900 and including 'baroque', 'classical', and 'romantic' periods, and the twentieth century, has been said to include 'modern', 'high modern', 'contemporary', and 'post modern' (according to Wikipedia, citing Leon Botstein). Not only are there more styles of composition in the twentieth century than in previous times, but the styles overlap and influence each other in ways that were not really seen in 'common practice period'. As Richard Taruskin describes, "by the time one reaches the twentieth century, and particularly the later twentieth century, one has to cut one's own swath through the jungle, and no two treatments of the period ever duplicate one another's choice of topics or examples" (Taruskin, Preface). Music historians will likely never come to a consensus on how to divide and define sub genres that have existed and continue to develop in classical music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  

Despite this, historians would still classify modern and contemporary music as classical. But I think the treatment of this period by music historians, critics, musicians, and composers, and the various ways that different groups define  'contemporary' or 'modern' classical music, has led to a breakdown between what the general public understands classical music as, and what musicians/composers/historians see it as, at least roughly. It is curious to me, for example, that 'contemporary classical music', as a concept, has its own page in Wikipedia, used extensively by the general public, but when you head over to Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, "contemporary classical music" and "contemporary music" yield no specific entries. Instead, Grove more or less replaced the term with "Modernism". In his encyclopedic entry, which is also quoted in Wikipedia, Botstein defines modernism as "a term used in music to denote a multi-faceted but distinct and continuous tradition within 20th-century composition", but acknowledges quite quickly that the term was adopted at the end of the 19th century before Wagner's death, and is often connected to Mahler, Debussy, Skriabin and Strauss, who all now are defined as "precursors" of 20th century modernism (Botstein, 2001).  

In attempt to provide myself some clarity, at least (which, ultimately, is the point of this whole exercise!) I will venture forth and define "modern" as the period from roughly the end of the 20th century until around 1970, and contemporary as 1970 to present.  Scholars such as Daniel Albright have said that modernism, in music, is aesthetically defined by certain styles or genres, like expressionism, neoclassicism, and abstractionism (Albright, 11).  Others define modernism as the period up until around 1930, and 1930 until around 1970 as 'postmodern'. Today, however, more and more historians argue that any distinction between modern and post modern is impossible given the simultaneity  and crosscurrents of characteristics that one would use to define a given period. As my topic is contemporary music, however, I will leave that debate for the modernists. Phew!

The Breakdown

The lack of understanding, societally and publically, of what contemporary music is can be attributed to more than just a lack of simplified and labeled music history. Similar to the debate surrounding absolute and program music in the second half of the 19th century (Brahms/et. al. vs Lizst/Wagner/et. al.), arguments developed in the second half of the twentieth century regarding what can and cannot be defined as "modern".  At the helm, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who advocated that the serial post-tonal techniques started by Schoenberg and the second Viennese school were the only real progressives, insisted that in order to fulfill is historical destiny, (art) music must continue to reject populism and capitalist impulses.  This began to divide composers, reaching back to Stravinsky, and affecting those who were influenced by him.  It pitted serialists against neoclassicists, and had far reaching consequences for division within 20th century composers.

Composers like Milton Babbitt, for instance, went so far as to insist that contemporary and modern music (composed by himself, and those like him) had become an art form where only the truly knowledgeable could understand; that art music had become like advanced physics or mathematics, not for public consumption. He even went so far as to declare the public irrelevant to the creation and value of contemporary music ("Who cares if you listen?" from 1958)*. While his intent was to lament the power of public criticism, this attitude, coupled with the advent of technology and the development of popular music in the second half of the twentieth century, pushed modern classical art music further from the eye of the public, while the other modern art forms remained in the fore (architecture, visual arts, theater, dance, etc.). The backlash to Babbitt's claims isolated the serialist group of the composers, as they were accused of forgetting the "basic social function and purpose of musical art" (Kelber, 2016). It is hard to understate the effect that this isolation had on contemporary music, especially in the United States, and how polarized listeners remain to this day.

"Live composers, dead audiences" (Mayer, 1975) 

If contemporary music did not have enough problems, there are some critics that argue that classical music, inherently, has always tended to look backwards instead of forwards: "the core problem is, I suspect, neither physiological nor sociological. Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music's idolatrous relationship with the past" (Ross, 2010).  Contemporary music has been separated, in this respect, from the rest of classical music repertoire.

In many parts of the world, classical music inherently means playing music that is old. Composers worth playing, according to some, should not be living. In his book No Vivaldi in the Garage: A Requiem for Classical Music in America, Sheldon Morgenstern writes that composers like Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Richard Strauss "and their contemporaries are the ones whose music fills concert halls worldwide" (Morgenstern, 95). He views contemporary composers as simply trying to "one up" their predecessors, instead of "learning their roots", and advocates ignoring the genre completely (Morgenstern, 159). And this is someone who created the Eastern Music Festival, to this day one of the largest and most important summer festivals for young musicians! In fact, Morgenstern goes as far as to partially blame contemporary composers for the decline of classical music in America (see Milton Babbitt, et. al....).

In 1975, composer and journalist William Mayer noted, "we have a vicious circle: conductors shy away from programing contemporary music because audiences shy away from the unfamiliar. Audiences are less familiar with contemporary music because it is less often programed" (Mayer, 1975).  As I read Mayer's article, I realized that not much has changed in the last thirty plus years.  And this issue certainly did not start in the twentieth century. Unfortunately there has always been much less interest in the music of the present, than the music of the past. "New works do not succeed in Leipzig" was apparently one noted response to the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1859 (Ross, 2010).  As a result, classical music as a term, as a genre, has become equated with what is old.


Unlike architecture and the visual arts, listening to classical music requires a commitment of concentration and a surrender of freedom, in a way.  With other art, the audience can approach and reproach at will, lingering or moving forward at one's own pace.  With dance and theater, the ears and eyes are engaged.  With concert music, we rely solely on our ears, with much less visual stimulation, and often times, more than one listening is required for our minds and ears to become attuned to what we are hearing.  That is quite a commitment for art music, which in the twentieth century, had to begin competing with the much easier to digest 'popular music'.

Contemporary music takes even more commitment, more time for the ear to adjust, than many older forms of classical music.  However, I would argue that in most cases, the ear will 'get used to it', just as one has gotten used to hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  Contemporary and modern music, as a whole, remains a sub genre of classical music.  One might not be able to hear it right away, but contemporary composers are tied, influenced, shaped by all the classical art music that has come before.  A composer might reject something from the past - tonality, rhythm, harmonic structure, what constitutes melody - but that does not mean that the end product bears no connection to what came before.  It might be harder to hear, but it's still there.

Works Cited

Albright, Daniel. 2004. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Botsein, Leon. 2001, January 20. "Modernism." Grove Music Online. Retrieved from

"Contemporary Classical Music". Wikipedia.  Retrieved from

Kelber, Zalman. 2016, March 24. Entropy. Retrieved from

Mayer, William. 1975, Feb 2. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Morgenstern, Sheldon. 2001. No Vivaldi in the Garage: A Requiem for Classical Music in America.  Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press. 

Ross, Alex. 2010, November 28. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Late Twentieth Century. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2018. <>.

Lucy Abrams