Vital Signs

Between Tyranny and Chaos

An Appraisal of 20th-century Music

Why does serious 20th-century music attract so few listeners? This unpopularity is not due to a lack of interest in serious music itself, since classical music is a formidable industry that regularly draws vast numbers of listeners worldwide. These people flock to listen to the works of an earlier era, however—music of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Why should a public that obviously loves music be so consistently repelled by the music of its own time?

A popular explanation is that people are lazy or uninformed. If they would only take the time and trouble to understand contemporary music better, they would soon be able to enjoy it. A close examination of contemporary music does not support this excuse. The problems begin with our composers, not our audience, as will be clear from the examples below, which are taken from some of the most acclaimed composers of the 20th century.

One of the principal characteristics of 20th-century music is an increasing mechanicalism in both its creation and performance. The first step in this direction was the invention of the twelve-tone or "serial" technique of composition by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920's. In this system, the composer chooses a row or "series" of the twelve notes of the scale, and writes his entire piece made up of various permutations of this series.

This system has an inherent lack of freedom...

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