When Is New Music Not New Anymore?

Over the past few months as I’ve been pursuing my degree at WMU, I’ve heard quite a few of my fellow classmates groan. What are they groaning about, you may ask? They are groaning about what they term as “new” music.

Enjoyment factor of the music aside, I never liked the term “new music.” The term has several issues. 1) What does “new” mean? 2) Does new mean “relevant?” 3) Is there a qualitative judgment going on?

The Imprecision of the Word “New”

In English, we have one word for something recent. Unfortunately, it is not always accurate when we use it. The ancient Greeks actually had two words for new. “Neos” meant new as in “something that happened recently rather than in the past.” “Kainos” meant new as in “something that is qualitatively different than what came before.”

So what does “new” mean when we are talking about new music in the Western classical music sense, new-in-time or new-in-kind? This is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, we mean that it was composed recently. But this usage is confusing, especially in the current climate. You currently have multiple ways of composing music. The major/minor scale system (tonality) that’s been used since the 1600’s is still wildly popular, and is probably the most widely used. You also have atonality, chance music, musique électronique, musique concrète, as well as other modern modes of composition.

It should be noted here that many of the modern ways of writing are no longer new (in time). Arnold Schoenberg was writing atonal music over a hundred years ago. John Cage’s most famous chance music was 4’33” (1952), which was written 64 years ago. Musique  électronique and concrète also originated in the 5o’s. The search for extended techniques has been happening since that time as well.

Often, however, we mean the type of music that is new in quality. It is different than what came before. The designation of “new” has occurred at least twice in music history: the Ars Nova (new art) from the 1300’s, and the stile moderno (modern style) from the 1600’s. These were drastic changes from the styles that came before. In much the same way, the modern “new” music refers not to tonality, as that was already in use before the 20th century, but to the newer (in time), more experimental ways of music-making. Since they are both being used at the same time, I believe that the term “new” to describe the latter kind of music is a misnomer. Instead, I am going to use the term “experimental music.” If someone knows a better term for this type of music, I would welcome it.

The Need for Relevancy

Part of the popularity of experimental music amongst intelligentsia, particularly after WWII, was a perceived need for music of our time. Tonality was considered too old, stodgy, and incapable of communicating the problems of the modern world. Music needed to be relevant.

In my opinion, this sentiment is wrongheaded.  “Music of our time” to me means “music that is written in our time.” If the music is relevant, people of that time will write and connect with it. People were still communicating with tonality; they still are.

Does experimental music usage count as music of our time? Yes, it does. Does tonality also count? Very much so. Tonality’s enduring popularity proves this. Frankly, the modern, experimental music never really caught on with the musician on the street. It is highly doubtful that experimental music will overtake tonality any time soon.

Avoiding Qualitative Judgments

A danger in modern music is that many modern composers proclaimed that it would be the new way in which all great music would be written. I once had a professor who attended a college in Indiana tell the class that his theory teacher, a student of Schoenberg, covered the tonal era (400 years worth of music) in just two days! The rest of his theory classes revolved around experimental music. This theory teacher thought that experimental music was the future, and took that belief to an extreme. One must avoid this kind of thinking and allow history to decide. Admittedly, this is hard to do for many people, particularly if they love a certain type of music.


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