SOUND PATTERNS

A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music

by PHILLIP MAGNUSON

MICROCOSMS

Musical Styles of the Twentieth Century

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Chapter 41.
Impressionism
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Chapter 42.
Primitivism
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Chapter 43.
Neo-classicism
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Chapter 44.
Expressionism
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Chapter 45.
Serialism
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Chapter 46.
Jazz
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Chapter 47.
Indeterminism
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Chapter 48.
Texturalism
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Chapter 49.
Minimalism
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Chapter 50.
Electronicism
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Chapter 51.
Neo-romanticism
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Chapter 52.
Eclecticism

INTRODUCTION

Looking backward

Before examining music of the 20th century, it is useful to take a look at the prevailing style in Western music that led us into it: the Common Practice Period (1600-1900). The five basic elements that constitute the common practice:

  1. Tonality:

    The essential organization is around a single pitch, the tonic, which provides a home base to the ear. All other pitches work to establish the pre-eminence of tonic. Furthermore, an organization of phrases (generally made up of 4, 8, or 16 measures) expand the establishment of tonic; all phrases end with a cadence which confirms this sense of tonic.

  2. Vocabulary:

    The essential vocabulary is a diatonic pattern of seven stepwise pitches called major and minor scales. Chromatic pitches, the remaining five, can be used, but only to enhance the diatonic ones.

  3. Texture:

    The essential texture is created with counterpoint, which is two or more simultaneous individual and independent lines, each of which confirms the pre-eminence of tonic and utilizes the vocabulary of a major or minor scale.

  4. Sonorities:

    The essential sonority (chord) is consonant and is a group of three notes (a triad) arranged in thirds (tertian). Dissonance is used, which could be a group of four notes arranged in thirds (a tertian tetrad) or non-chordal embellishments (passing and neighboring tones, suspensions, and pedals, among others). All dissonances are required to resolve.

  5. Time organization:

    The essential time organization is based on simple or compound meters, with 2, 3, or 4 consistent beats per measure. The first beat is always the strongest, and the others take on various degrees of strength.

This was the state of affairs which set up the events of the 20th century.

At a glance

It is the basic premise of this unit that when a composer either generally modifies or completely changes more than one of these five elements, a new music (or UNcommon practice) is created.

Each chapter will present a small table indicating how the style described in that chapter relates to the five elements of the Common Practice Period. It is not scientific, but it will show some of the changes that were made in the 20th century.

This styleTonalityVocabularyTextureSonorityTime
basically maintains:
generally modifies:
completely changes:

The demise of the macrocosm

The Common Practice Period offered a unified view of music (at least for Europe). The diversity of European cultures and languages required a common language for musical communication. This common language, or common practice, formed a MACROCOSM, or "large universe", to which composers subscribed for three centuries. At the end of the 19th century, however, the tremendous growth of science and technology (especially as seen in communications) made Western civilization a much smaller place, and the need for a common musical language was not as crucial.

There were, of course, many Romantic composers who lived well into the 20th century, and although they made some concessions to the new century, they still rightfully belong to the Common Practice Period. Among them are

The birth of the microcosms

Music of the 20th century is unique in the flow of Western history in its pluralism. Composers began to explore a more personal and individual approach to musical creation, forming their own MICROCOSMS, or "small universes". No longer bound to the rules formed by one musical approach, they customized sound to suit their own views and preferences.

There were three important microcosms near the turn of the century: Impressionism, Primitivism, and Expressionism. Impressionism was a reaction, probably the greatest in music history, to the state of music at the end of the 19th century. Expressionism followed the path of the Common Practice Period, but mutated each of the five basic elements stated above; it led to Serialism and Total Serialism. Primitivism positioned itself someplace between Impressionism and Expressionism, and led eventually to Neo-classicism and Neo-romanticism. Reactions to these styles created Indeterminism, Texturalism, and Minimalism. New technology created Electronicism. Popular music, as in Jazz, added valuable material to the musical palette. As the century progressed, each of these styles branched out and criss-crossed.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but...

The truth of the 20th century is complex. This branching also included many cross-overs and cross-influences of style. The separation of these styles into discrete units is artificial; some composers are simply impossible to categorize neatly. At the end of the century, it was a great tangled, wonderful web of experimentation and techniques.

It is important to understand that few, if any, composers used any one of these microcosms in their total creative output. In the best spirit of the 20th century, they would pick and choose stylistic traits, and change allegiance throughout their careers, considering only those items which represented their vision at the time of composition. For this reason, it is likely that the past century will be known as the era of Eclecticism.

This text does not propose to cover all the microcosms of the 20th century, but rather, to highlight some of the more influential ones. It will present some of the unique, typical, and characteristic elements of each influential style. The analysis projects are to be done in class, with particular attention paid as to how they illustrate these elements. The purpose of the composition projects is for the student to synthesize their observations about each style into sound, and to gain a greater appreciation of the compositional process. These projects are a vital part to understanding 20th century music, and are second only to listening to repertoire.

Two anthologies contain many of the analysis assignments and suggested listening [their location in the anthology is indicated in brackets]:

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Links to other units in Sound Patterns
FUNDAMENTALS
BASIC RULES FOR SPECIES COUNTERPOINT
DIATONIC PROCEDURES I: Harmonic Dimensions
DIATONIC PROCEDURES II: Expanding the Phrase
DIATONIC PROCEDURES III: Substitutions
CHROMATIC PROCEDURES I: Moving from the Global Key
THE ABC's OF CHORALE SETTING
LARGER PERSPECTIVES
CHROMATIC PROCEDURES II: Modal Mixtures
CHROMATIC PROCEDURES III: Advanced Vocabulary
THREE ANALYSIS PROJECTS

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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