The Modern Period

Music of the 20th century broke free of the styles and traditions of the previous periods. Composers explored different ways to produce sound. Rhythmic patterns became much more free, often changing frequently in a piece. Melody was becoming more dissonant--harsher--moving by leaps rather than steps. Harmony was also becoming more dissonant.


No single musical style dominated the modern era. Music of the 20th century was often unpredictable. Some composers took risks by including non-traditional instruments, lots of time signature changes, and unique sounds. Composers like John Cage put bolts and nuts onto piano strings to make the sound unusual. One of the most popular styles was "chance" music, where the outcome is often different every time a piece is performed.

QUESTION #1: What other name is given to "chance" music?

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Composers began incorporating electronics into their music as soon as the technology became widely-available. Early period composers used recorded sounds and basic effects. Later composers began using electronic keyboards and instruments, and some used pre-recorded material as part of their music. Some composers refused to dabble with electronics, as they felt it took away from the spirit of having instrumentalists perform live.

QUESTION #2: What is the name of the technology that allowed electronic musical instruments to work together and with computers?

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Many composers used unique and non-traditional instruments in their compositions. Examples of this include the wind machine, typewriter, and brake drums. Composers allowed the sound around them to serve as part of the music. The lack of structure allowed many different styles to flourish, and most of the "ground rules" were thrown out the door.

QUESTION #3: Which keyboard instrument was used often in contemporary compositions, and is still used by many composers today?

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Brake Drum on Stand

Brake Drum
on a Stand

Photo Credit:

John Cage
"Cheap Imitation"

Audio Credit: Wikimedia

Click the play button to listen.

Developing a
"prepared piano"

Video Credit: YouTube