A History of Music for SingersFor most people, when they think of “modern” music, the first things that spring to mind are either contemporary popular music (which is a story for another series), atonalism, or 4’33. For singers, however, none of these ideas really reflect the vocal music produced in the 20th century.

It feels like stating the obvious to say that the 20th century was a century of massive social change. If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, you’ll know life in 1912 was very different from live in 2000. Two world wars, one cold war, and a digital revolution. It’s not surprising music changed drastically.

The story of 20th century music begins where we left the Romantic era – Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan. Wagner was the high point of what we now call “Classical” music. Rich in harmony, full of complex musical features but still tonal. This high art continued to be the favoured style for many musicians into the early 20th century. However, there was a new force on the horizon – modernism. Inspired by, and reacting to the growth of industrial cities, artists who began to abandon the “rules” of their genres, rejecting the idea that their work should reflect the real. Fine art began to experiment with abstraction (Picasso), and  playwrights developed new surrealist theatre (Brecht).

Composers began to pull away from the traditional rules of harmony, and tried to invent new ways to create music. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is serialism, where all twelve notes of the keyboard are placed in a random order and are used in that order. For an excellent explanation of how serialism works, click on the first video below (warning: it’s 30 minutes long). If you don’t have time, click on the second video and have a listen to an example of serialist music.

Vocal music was not, however, frequently produced by those working at the cutting edge of modernist music. I suspect this is because very atonal music is not very easy to sing. However, the influence of this disregard for traditional harmony can be felt in many early twentieth century songs which go further than Romantic songs in using chromatic harmonies and playing fast and loose with key signatures. This is an example of an art song by Debussy, who was heavily influenced by modernist ideas.

By the mid-20th Century, composers such as Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti and Michael Tippet were using this densely harmonised music to convey the complex and fractured nature of post-war society. Listen to this aria, The Soul of Man, from Michael Tippet’s Child of Our Time oratorio, composed during World War II.

The early 20th century is also where there is a divergence of music into a range of more defined genres takes hold. While the composers of “high art” music were experimenting with atonalism, other composers drew on the bastard child of opera, the operetta, to develop a new genre of sung music – the musical. This genre completely ignored the deconstruction of harmony and retained a regular and familiar feel . Listen to this song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who are credited with defining the modern genre of musical theatre:

Popular music also began to develop as it became possible to record music, and share it. Music like jazz and ragtime from the black communities of America began to influence popular song writers from other cultural backgrounds, and by the mid-1950s, popular music was no longer just songs learned by ear in the pub – it was an industry and a genre all of its own. Listen to this early rock & roll song by Bill Haley & his Comets, and see if you hear the parallels with blues and jazz.

However, this divide between popular music and high classical music was not completely clear-cut thanks to one last invention in the 20th century: cinema. Since the invention of the “talkies”, background music has become integral to the way in which stories are told on film. This has spawned a whole new genre of classical music which is still listened to by the masses. I’m sure this fabulous piece of classical music by John Williams needs no introduction:

From small beginnings around the firesides and alters of the 14th and 15th centuries, music in the 21st century is a thriving business, thriving on variety as well as popularity. All the way through, the voice has remained at the centre of this development, and now drives the most profitable part of the music industry – popular music.

The key forms of music for voice in the 20th Century era were:

  • New song genres – jazz, pop, musical, blues
  • Musical theatre
  • Rise of ‘popular music’
  • Opera, choral works and religious music still written
  • Non-singing vocal forms like rap develop

 When you’re trying to decide if something is 20th Century music, listen out for:

  • Experimental
  • Often dissonant
  • Based on unusual harmonies
  • Wide variety of trends and styles
  • Development of film and TV music
  • New forms of ‘folk music’
  • Anything goes!

Composers to Remember:


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