Modern – 20th Century


Aleatoric, Atonal, Cluster, Col Legno, Flutter tonguing, Impressionist, Irregular metres, Microtone, Minimalist, Musique Concrete, Neo-Classical, Polytonality, Retrograde, Serial, Sprechgesang, Tone row, Whole-tone scale.

Aleatoric – The elements of chance in music, where the players have some freedom as to the choice of pitch and rhythm, etc. No two performances are exactly the same.
Atonal – No feeling of key, major or minor. Very dissonant. A feature of some 20th-century music.
Cluster – A group of notes played on a keyboard instrument with the palm of the hand or even with the forearm. Used in some 20th-century music.
Col legno – Instruction given to string players to turn the bow over and to bounce the wood on the strings. See Arco and Pizzicato.
Flutter tonguing – A method of tonguing in which the player rolls the letter ‘r’. It is used by wind players and is particularly effective for flute and brass.
Impressionist – A term borrowed from painting in which brief musical ideas merge and change to create a rather blurred and vague outline. Debussy was an important composer of this style. (Extended definition – Texture and timbral exploration were also important features, including use of whole tone and pentatonic scales, parallel chords and unresolved discords.)
Irregular metres – Often in modern or rhythmically based ethnic music, groupings of notes change, but the underlying pulse remains constant. Groupings of two and three produce irregular accents and metres. (Extended definition – Sometimes composers in the 20th century try to destroy the feeling of a regular down beat by changing the time signature frequently. Stravinsky often used this technique, particularly in ‘The Rite of Spring’.
Microtone – Any interval noticeably smaller than a semitone, most often found in the music of Eastern European countries and also in Indian and Arabic music. It is sometimes used by contemporary classical composers.
Minimalist – A development in the second half of the 20th century based on simple rhythmic and melodic figures that are constantly repeated with very slight changes each time.
Musique concrète – Recorded natural sounds that are transformed using simple editing techniques such as cutting and re-assembling, playing backwards, slowing down and speeding up.
Neo-classical – New classicism. From about 1929, onwards this style in music came about when composers reacted against Romanticism and wanted to return to the structures and styles of earlier periods but combined with dissonant, tonal and even atonal harmonies. The composers started to write for smaller orchestras. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were two of the composers of this style.
Polytonality – The use of two or more keys played or sung at the same time, e.g. the melody may be in the key of C major whilst the accompaniment might be in E major. This device was used by many 20th-century composers, e.g. Bartok, Ives, Holst and Stravinsky.
Retrograde – To go backwards. A melody or a section of music can be written or performed from the end to the beginning. The texture of the music including the harmonies can be written or performed from the end to the beginning. Retrograde inversion means the music can be written or performed backwards and upside-down at the same time. These are called serial techniques. See Serial.
Serial – A 20th-century method of musical composition invented by Schoenberg in which the twelve notes of the Chromatic scale are organised into a series or tone row. This row can be transposed, inverted or played in retrograde, and forms the material basis for an entire work or movement. See Tone row, Retrograde, Inversion and Atonal.
Sprechgesang – A technique used in vocal music where the singer is required to use the voice in an expressive manner half-way between singing and speaking. It appears in a number of pieces by Schoenberg and Berg (early 20th century).
Tone row – An arrangement of the twelve notes of the octave that forms the basis of a composition. Each note is as important as another; there are no important notes such as the tonic and dominant. The row can also be used in inversion or retrograde. See Serial.
Whole-tone scale – A scale containing no semitones but built entirely on whole tones. Debussy used the whole-tone scale in some of his pieces, which were influenced by Impressionism. See Impressionist.

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