C20th Music Characteristics

C20th Music characteristics are the essence of the senior course. The mandatory topic Music of the Last 25 Years (Australian Focus) looks mostly at art Music, and much of this music contains features highlighted in the notes. Some music written in this period is Neo-Classic, and may sound more traditional. Some music draws influence from other world cultures. Music Music is chance, and some is Minimalist. There are plenty of sub-genres, but these notes apply to much art music.



(a)    NEW                            instrumental combinations e.g. Schoenberg wrote a serenade for baritone voice, clarinet. Bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola and cello; or Bartok’s Strings Percussion and Celesta.

(b)   UNUSUAL                 uses conventional instruments e.g. plucking the strings inside a grand piano; new uses of string instruments e.g. ¼tones, sulponticello, harmonies – bassoon playing in very high register in the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

(c)    DEVELOPMENTS     in electronic acoustics have resulted in new sound generators; tape recorders – distortion, played backwards etc.



(a)    New Scale Systems               Pentatonic, wholetone, pseudo-oriental scales and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system.

(b)   Microtonality                          The division of the octave into more than twelve tones.

(c)     Polytonality                            The use of two or more keys simultaneously.

(d)    Atonality                                  No sense of key or tonality.



(a)    New Intervals                         Chords are constructed of intervals other than 3rds e.g. quartalharmony – chords built in 4ths and quintal harmony – chords built in 5ths.

(b)   Tone Clusters                          Masses of adjacent notes, like a bunch of grapes.

(c)    Added Tones                           Adding tones to otherwise conventional structures e.g. C E G C# F.

(d)   Mixed Chords                         The use of two different chords sounding simultaneously is called polyharmoney e.g. C E G against G# B D#.

(e)   Dissonance                               Music in the 20th Century characteristically employs much more sharply dissonant combinations of tones, employs principals of preparation and resolution.


  1. MELODY                                    To a considerable extent, 20th century melodic progression is characteristically disjunct (use of wide leaps),angular (skips in opposite directions) and dissonant (progression by dissonant intervals).  Fragmentation also occurs with a melody fragment spread over different instruments.



(a)    Time Signatures such as587108  etc.

(b)   Changing time sigs  58 134   17etc.

(c)    By using accents and irregular note groupings within the bar, complex rhythmic xxxxxx are achieved.


  1. TIMBRE                                      In contrast to the massive, rich sounds of the 19th Century, 20th Century sonority is characteristically light, transparent and clear, fewer sounds sounding simultaneously, wider spacing of sounds, use of higher registers and clarity of timbre.


Many of these symbols will appear at the start of a score with an explanation of how to interpret and play. They are applied to several families of instruments.

Click here to download SYMBOLS pdf