(musTh 212) Lecture Notes: Modernism and Postmodernism

For our purposes, Modernism and Postmodernism are best thought of as broad movements, rather than historical time periods. Some people refer to them as projects, ongoing efforts at achieving certain philosophical aims. Although we could spend a couple of semesters talking about nothing else but “what is…”, I’d like to offer up a list of traits and beliefs that will help in a basic understanding.


Modernism is most associated with the ideals of the Enlightenment, which favors rational thought, progress (newness), and scientific experiment. It is believed that the improvement of the human condition comes from following these ideals. If the goal is progress, and this goal is met through new developments, it is understood that past ideas (conservatism) are generally inferior to new ideas and developments. Implicit in the Modernist project is the central and primary status of Western European culture as the ideal of rationality and progress, if not outright superior to non-Western European cultures.

Musically speaking, we tend to associate Modernism with atonal composition, originating with Schoenberg and developing through the 12-tone serial method of composition. Post WWII serialism, where more musical parameters are subjected to ordering and methodical transformation, can be seen as an outgrowth of the “rational thought” ideal. Much electronic/computer music, especially by composers such as Stockhausen, can be viewed in Modernist terms, as a scientific/technological advance. While some classical/historical forms remain, you find composers moving away from forms traditionally associated with tonal composition (Sonata, Rondo, etc.). However genres, such as symphonic writing, string quartets, etc., remain at the forefront. Popular music and art, and the music of non-western cultures is not considered to represent progress. Notably, the meaning of a modernist work is found through internal examination of the work, not through external reference. Internal reference relies on rational relationships. External reference could be thought of as non-rational, mystical.

Postmodernism is difficult to think of as a single set of aesthetic principles. Despite this, we some common threads. Interdisciplinary works (mixing of different art forms) proliferate. Quotation and collage works are prevalent, especially the use of quotation (either actual or stylistic) to serve as a stand-in for some external reference. The material in a work that references something else is considered the “signifier,” while its external reference is the “signified.” Many Postmodern works can be thought of as inter-textual, referring to the concept of meaning being derived from the relationship of the work to many other works. Another aspect frequently associated with Postmodernism is the mixing of high (art) and low (pop) culture together. It should be noted that pop music, for example, has many subcategories, and itself sometimes wrestles with the ideas of Modern and Postmodern. Many Postmodern artists have a way of flattening pop culture that evokes the idea of the exotic, or other, and could be seen as a trait similar to Modernism.

Postmodernism can also be thought of as a way for understanding any art work, if we acknowledge that audiences bring history/experience with them to the consumption of art. Deconstructionism is a Postmodern practice, and it views as something like narrative (or the construction of a story).

It is possible for contemporary works to be neither Modern or Postmodern. Some artists and composers reject the aesthetics of both movements, preferring to write in a past style without irony (which would be parody). I would prefer to refer to these works as pre-Modern.

It is also possible that works may contain elements of both Modernity and Postmodernity. I think that this is especially true in the use of pop music. Some composers use pop music as just another form of material to be developed. On the one hand, this combining of high and low culture is typically Postmodern, but using it devoid of external meaning (a kind of Pastiche) could be considered consistent with Modernist treatment of material.


2 responses to “(musTh 212) Lecture Notes: Modernism and Postmodernism”

  1. jenniferrife Avatar

    I still don’t really understand internal reference vs. external references. I can say the definition, but I think I just need specific examples.

  2. An internal relationship would be a pitch class set that is derived from another pitch-class set already present in a piece. Another example would the choices of row forms in the Webern, which all featured A and Eb prominently.

    An external reference would refer to another piece, style, etc. In the Tenney Collage #1, the use of the Elvis Presley material (Blue Suede Shoes) is an external reference. In the Rouse piece “Bonhom” the external reference is to the drummer from Led Zeppelin, specifically, and to rock music in general. If you don’t know that what you’re hearing is a rock pattern, the music loses a bit of meaning.

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