Classical music changed dramatically over the 20th century, reacting to a global culture influenced by world wars, technology and changing social norms. The rate of change and proliferation of new ideas accelerated as the decades passed: from expressionism to atonality, from traditional instruments to electronic ones, from accepted forms to experimental styles. By the mid-century, music took a page from the art world’s book, and influential composers began to craft conceptual pieces as relevant alternatives to traditionally composed ones. New works of music overtly referenced — in both titles and musical content — rock-and-roll and foreign cultures; musicians took performances out of the concert hall to unexpected venues like warehouses and clubs. All of this is to say, modern classical music is a very broad category of music, encompassing sounds that twist from the strange and confusing to the nostalgic and comfortable.

Without much background in the development of these styles, listening to modern classical music can be a little daunting. But, with a few pointers from an insider on what to listen for and why, it’s much easier to dive into the nebulous genre. So exercise a bit of patience and keep an open mind, because modern classical is a listening adventure full of surprises.

About the Expert

David Tanenbaum, classical guitarist: An outstanding performer, recording artist and educator, David Tanenbaum is internationally recognized as one of the top classical guitarists of his generation. He has performed throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, the former Soviet Union and Asia, and in 1988 he was the first American guitarist to be invited to perform in China by the Chinese government. Though his repertoire covers many stylistic periods, he is acknowledged as one of the leading proponents of modern classical music. Many notable composers have written pieces for him, including Hans Werner Henze, Terry Riley, Aaron Jay Kernis, Roberto Sierra and Lou Harrison. Tanenbaum’s three-dozen recordings can be found across a range of labels including New Albion, EMI, Nonesuch, Ars Musici, Bridge and others. He is currently the Chair of the Guitar Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Before You Listen

Research the Composer. “First of all, like the world today, music is increasingly diverse. There are prevailing trends, but not one dominating international style, and that makes listening more challenging but also more interesting. So to navigate that morass a listener should first try to learn something about the composer and his or her influences. Is this a young American who is likely influenced to some degree by pop music? An elder-statesman European writing vigorous, dense music in the atonal tradition? Or perhaps someone incorporating world music?”

Be Aware of the Options. “Like in all of art, the creation of a piece of music involves myriad choices, and listeners should note what the big ones are. What’s the ensemble and why? What possibilities does this ensemble open up, and what does it eliminate? If this is an ethnically influenced piece, did the composer use these influences only with Western instruments (e.g. Reich) or is it a combination of Western and Eastern (e.g. Harrison)?”


Ask Questions. “What’s the structure? Is it big, small, multi-movement? Are there older forms like fugue or named movements? What’s the inspiration? First, is it programmatic or not? If it is based on writing or art, try to see or read the original, and read any program note the composer has provided. Finally, what’s this piece’s history? Is it a classic with a long performance history, like Le Marteau, or something brand new?”

Treat It Like a Book or Movie. “These are all questions that listeners can use to develop context before hearing a note. They do similar things with novels, movies or art before deciding to embark on those journeys. Occasionally a reader will buy a book on an impulse, but most often a reader will have some context of the author or story before buying.”

Glossary of Terms

Atonal: Music that has no specific tonality or key; music without a “home” note/chord.
Fugue: A contrapuntal piece of music in which a short musical idea is introduced by one part and is successively introduced into others, developing and interweaving between the parts.
Harmony: The sound resulting from the simultaneous playing of two or more notes, and the technique controlling the construction and successive arrangement of these sounds.
Just Intonation: A form of tuning in which a scale is tuned to the overtone series (naturally occurring harmonics) of a fundamental, or home pitch. This is different than the normal Western tuning of equal temperament, where pitches are separated by the same interval. The resulting sound has more extreme consonances and dissonances. (This is complicated; see Tanenbaum’s explanation below for how this relates to the listening experience.)
Meters: A pattern of stressed beats that give music a sense of pulse.
Minimalism: A style of modern music that created rhythmic, often tonal pieces, derived from simple repeating processes.
Movement: A section of a larger work that is essentially complete in itself.
Programmatic: Music that has a narrative or is guided by descriptive non-musical content.

While You’re Listening

Relax. “Once actually listening, the first piece of advice I would give is to not try too hard. When listening to a Mozart piano concerto, I think most listeners’ brains don’t go into overdrive right away, but rather they settle into the familiar style and perhaps relax. But when hearing the very new, many listeners’ brains often go into overdrive looking for some handles, and then maybe give up in exhaustion before too long. But after developing some context as described above, I would do the opposite: just sit back and let the music hit you. Just be open to it for a little while. Imagine that it’s familiar rather than unknown, and trust that it will reveal its secrets to you.”

Feel the Pulse. “My way in is almost always rhythm first. I want to feel how the music is moving — or if it is — in my body, not my head. Can I tap my foot to this, or better yet, do I want to tap my foot to it? I let my body move to the music if it wants to. So as not to disturb other listeners my toes are often very active within my shoes. I like to go after meters pretty fast, but lay-listeners may want to see if they can feel larger grouping of the rhythm. If they can’t, that’s also telling.”

Ask Questions. “Then, as in reading, one is eventually asking some questions as they go. Are the melodies spiky or smooth? Is this growing into something else or hanging steady? How dense is it? How are the instruments relating to each other? What musical colors can I perceive? If this piece is new, does it describe living in the world today? Could it have been written 50 years ago?”

“Ironically enough, the more complex the music is, the less I would advise a lay-listener to try. If the music is doing all that work for them, they should forget about trying to figure it out, sit back and hear what comes out at them.”

Consider the Style. “Listening to minimalism, with its wall of constant sound (and less rest than almost any other style) it’s common to fade in and out of attention, but I wouldn’t turn that into a rejection of the piece. The initial buzz of recognizing harmonies and rhythms that are instantly relatable can quickly turn into frustration at the slow pace of change, but that’s okay. Lay-listeners should let themselves race ahead of it mentally, or fall behind and space out, and see if eventually they settle into its pace. They can focus on the discrepancy between the often very fast-moving small notes and the glacial larger movements — what MTT likens to conducting an ocean liner.”

“If it is a piece with electronics, listen for the musical space that the electronics inhabit and compare it to that of the instruments. And of course listen for how they interact. Is one hyper instrument being created (e.g. Davidovsky)? Are they literally interacting, or are the electronics pre-recorded?”

“Probably the biggest prep they could have for just intonation is to understand that in just, consonances are more satisfying and dissonances more dissonant, so the experience of harmony will be more visceral, both more and less comfortable, whereas it will be more equalized in equal [temperament].”

Modern Classical Music Playlist

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