I was wondering what everyone thinks about the direction of what we refer to as "classical music." This is a topic that I give much thought to, and for me, it presents a rather irksome dilemma.


I am a huge fan of quite a bit of 20th-21st century music. I thoroughly enjoy works by some of the most relentlessly avant-garde composers. I love the concept of trying to do something completely unconventional, as long as it produces something that I can recognize as having a clear purpose. My general attitude about art is that even if my first reaction to a work is negative, if I can perceive that it has "purpose," it is worth it to me to try to develop an appreciation for it.


Regardless, I have no desire to compose music in this way. In fact, I have no desire to compose music that completely deviates from tonality. If one listens to my music, certainly one will find that the tonality is far from static; I tend to weave through many keys, and in some works such as my Dream Cycle or String Quartet, there are many sections where the tonal center is nearly impossible to detect. But in general, it's fairly obvious that I take a tonal approach to my music. I've found a harmonic language that (despite the fact that it continues to evolve) is rather consistent, and it can be defined mainly by use of polytonality, continual tonicization and jazz chords. This harmonic language, I've found, is complex enough to interest musicians but "pleasant" enough to appeal to non-musicians.


However, here's the dilemma: do I continue to compose in a style that is accessible, or do I expand my harmonic vocabulary to the point where the general feeling of tonality is obliterated? On one hand, I feel like writing "tonal" music will benefit me, because it will appeal to a wider audience. On the other hand, it seems that tonal contemporary music is often taken less seriously (if not ridiculed) among the general community of academic composers.


What further complicates things is the fact that classical music is losing its audience. I think a large part of this has to do with the fact that it's generally presented in a very elitist fashion that makes most people who lack exposure to it question whether its worth it to actually bother learning about it at all. I often wonder if classical music would gain a wider audience if the performers left the tuxedos and luxurious dresses at home and came out wearing casual attire. And what if contemporary composers were able to write music that is not only masterfully written but also "cool" enough to bring a younger audience into the concert hall? Maybe that's also part of the problem -- perhaps we should get classical music out of the concert hall and into venues where it will reach a greater social demographic?


So, fellow composers, I ask you: what do you all think about the direction of classical music, both artistically and politically?

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  • it sounds like you have an old school professor. The idea that atonal and experimental music is better to write then tonal music came about in the 1950-70s. Its a very old fashion way of teaching composition to students, imposing the thought that you have to be on the cutting edge of music all the time. Though that mentality is starting to fade now, there are still professors of composition out there perpetuating this thinking, and it sounds like you have one of these types to some extent.

    Perhaps. I wouldn't say that my professors teach that it's better to write atonal/experimental music, but the music that they usually make the biggest effort to expose us to tends to be in that vein. Thankfully, those that I have studied under have been very supportive of my less avant-garde approach to composition, and I feel like the faculty values helping you find and perfect your own voice over trying to impose their own tastes onto you.


    We are fortunate enough to live in a musical world that accepts all types and forms of music. Tonal, atonal, experimental, diatonic, electronic, they are all tools in our compositional tool box that we can use however we please. You explore the tool box and see what works for you. If tonal music works good, if atonal music works also good, like I said and you quoted "you need to know how to make it new and most importantly, make it you." I only hope that your fellow students will find their own voice instead of borrowing the voice of others due to external pressure to fit in.



  • Just write. Don't sell yourself short of anything. You might have a set of goals for a particular piece (such as making it "out of the box") while on the other hand, you might want to write something for a more uninformed audience. There is nothing wrong with either. You have to find that delicate balance where you accept the fact that you can't reinvent the wheel while at the same time you must keep current and not grow complacent. I am finding that while this balance will most likley not exist within every piece, it will exist as a whole (when taking into consideration all of your pieces in varying styles). 


    Every composition is different (whether it is commissioned or it is a work you are writing under a teacher) so I can't really say what the enviornment of writing for myself is. Someone in this thread mentioned that there is an audience for everything and they are right. Don't worry about that. Just keep writing the music you love (as cleche as that sounds).  

  • About teaching composition - I never teach my students to write music, this have to be innate. I explaine their how many ways they have then start something, or how to work with ritm, sound, structure in their concrete works, we listen together some work in area that they work and etc, but I never press to "do this or this"! Its their decision, or have to be of their.  So, it does no matter what style you prefere,  or write, you have to know the most important techniques of composition to can choose your way. If you dont know what type of technique you prefer, take world-famous works in each style and listen. You will find what give you more emotions, or interest As well as try to see in what techniques you feel better, maybe can help you to decide.



    How did you survive?
    Ray Kemp said:

    I know all about drones when the local police pipe band start practising a few hundred yards from my home in the summer months :-(

    Norbert Oldani said:
    No one really knows the future. Leonard Myers who was a musicologist at the University of Chicago once wrote (around 1969} as a prediction something to the effect that he believed that in the future there would be a static situation in musc where no one style would predominate and each type would have a rather closed following. ( Good Lord! Could you imagine always hearing nothing but drones?)

    The Direction of "Classical Music"
    I was wondering what everyone thinks about the direction of what we refer to as classical music. This is a topic that I give much thought to, and f…
  • here is an interesting essay by Paul Muller who is a member of the IF website:


    There have been a series of recent blog postings and articles describing the changes that serious music is undergoing in this 21st century digital age. Copyright issues, file sharing and the role of digital distribution are all the subject of much speculation and prediction. Has there ever been anything like this before? I believe that the history of the printing press can offer us some parallels worth considering.


    The Invention of the Printing Press

    The invention of the printing press some 550 years ago was one of the decisive moments in human history and had a profound effect on subsequent intellectual development. Many have described of the emergence of the Internet in similar terms – as a watershed in communication and transmission of information. The effects of the Internet are being widely felt in the arts – especially music. Are there parallels in the history of printing that can act as a guide to what will come next for new music?


    Books Before the Printing Press

    Before the invention of the printing press, books were very expensive to produce. As a result, access to information was limited to the very rich few. We all have a fair idea of how books were produced prior to the printing press – they were laboriously hand-copied by scribes onto expensive parchment or paper. Apart from the time and labor required, materials were also expensive – it took something like the hides of 300 sheep to make a single hand-copied parchment bible. Even as paper technology became better the overall cost was still considerable so that you had to be well off to own a few books and truly rich to be able to afford a library.


    Another reality of intellectual life prior to the printing press was the control of information. Control was possible because the main institution capable of supplying the labor, discipline and skills necessary to create books was the church - and the church was not above using its power to enforce its ideology. The limited availability of the written word only added to the problem. When Jan Hus was excommunicated for heresy in 1411, for example, it was simply a matter of burning just 200 or so of his extant manuscripts to put an end to his movement for religious reform. And it wasn’t just the church - any institution capable of producing a book was unlikely to embark on the creation of one that was critical of established interests and the status quo.


    A lesser-known aspect of books prior to the printing press was that they required interpretation. No matter how carefully the scribes copied, errors crept into the manuscripts and were propagated through successive copies. The task of the scholars of the time was to keep track of these errors and make corrections to books by writing in the margins. Books before the printing press therefore required expert interpretation and the scholars of the day acquired an aura of authority that often exceeded the contents of the manuscript itself.


    After the Printing Press

    Printing didn’t happen all at once. Many technical obstacles had to be overcome before the printing press became an important intellectual tool. We normally think of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type as the main breakthrough – and so it was. But that was only possible with previous improvements in metallurgy that allowed the casting of sufficiently small type pieces with the precision, hardness and durability needed for printing.


    Paper was another problem – the quality was highly variable and mostly unsuitable for printing – so this technology had to be refined and standardized before printing on a large scale was possible. Even the inks of the day required significant improvement before they would adhere properly to the available paper.


    Once these various technologies came together around the year 1450, the printing press became a formidable weapon, but even then it was another 70 years before the full effects of the printing press became evident. The first casualty was the ability of hierarchical institutions to control the flow of information. When Luther printed his theology the Roman Church could not simply collect all of his works and burn them – the printing press had made far too many copies for that to be feasible or effective. As a result, Luther’s break in 1517 was successful where that of Jan Hus 100 years before had been easily suppressed.


    Similarly, information became more widely available to the public. You no longer had to be rich to own a good set of books. Literacy and awareness increased – and anyone who developed knowledge could make it generally available without having to conform to the ideological requirements of large institutions. And as more eyes scanned the contents of the printed page, the control of errors became more systematic . A publisher could collect the errors in a given work and publish corrected editions – thus the need for interpretation by scholars was diminished and the weight of authority shifted to the actual contents of the book – the logic, evidence and reasoning that it contained . This increased the credibility of the printed word and set the stage for the renaissance and scientific revolutions that followed. So far from being just a cheaper way to transmit information, the printing press allowed intellectual progress to develop in unexpected ways and in unintended directions.


    Parallels with the Internet

    Can we look at the history of the printing press and see parallels with the emergence of the Internet in our own time? Probably, but we must bear in mind that the most dramatic effects of the printing press were only felt some 70 to 100 years after Gutenberg. Our digital age travels faster, but there is also a sense today that things are still evolving and we may be in a transitional phase. One need only look at the print, broadcast and music industries to see that new paradigms have not yet fully developed.


    Another complication for new music is that the means of digital music production are evolving even as the channels for digital distribution are increasing - and this adds another dimension to the changes we are experiencing now. Prior to the printing press one person copied one expensive book for one rich person – a one-to-one relationship that concentrated knowledge in the hands of the few. Post-Gutenberg one author could reach thousands at reduced cost, making enlightenment a near universal virtue. And now music can be realized electronically by the many and distributed worldwide – essentially for free.


    Loss of Institutional Control?

    I think the case can be made that the way serious music is currently created and presented today resembles the production of books before the printing press. The monk-like composer laboriously writes out his manuscript in his study by hand and – even though technically printed by a publisher – the final realization of his work is ultimately in the hands of institutional gatekeepers – symphony orchestras, music directors, academics, promoters, commissioning patrons and the like. A major new work like ‘City Noir’ by John Adams, for example, requires a small army of specialists to stage, rehearse and perform.


    Music today also requires interpretation. The famous world-wide symphony conductor – fill in your favorite name here – is the equivalent of the traveling scholar of the middle ages: he has carefully studied the score, and knows of its errors, omissions and difficulties. Kenneth Woods has recently written on the disorderly state of historic manuscripts and how the professional conductor is well advised to have his own score (including parts) so that everything is in readiness for the one or two rehearsals allowed before a final performance. Like the medieval scholar, the famous conductor often brings an aura of authority that sometimes overshadows the actual work . The conductor and the players also bring to the piece their interpretation of how it should be performed – a unique and critical element to its ultimate success.


    Similarly those who provide the means and venues for performance – schools, concert halls, paying audiences, fund-raisers, patrons and administrators - complete the edifice of traditional institutional control over the creation and realization of new music. As in the middle ages, the monkish composer might create the work in his cell, but it is the musical institutions that are ultimately necessary for the work to be heard in public.


    Will the Internet cause the collapse of this institutional control over music just as the printing press caused the loss of control over theology by the church? I think so – the parallels are too striking. Although still evolving, the digital tools for the realization of new music are now sufficient to allow the composer to create an electro-acoustic work fully-formed. Not only is the composer freed of the necessity of enlisting a huge organization to make a piece heard, but the composer can now reach listeners directly - all over the world - via the Internet. We have fulfilled the dream of Karl Marx – composers now control both the means of production and the means of distribution of their work. This can only have historically-significant consequences for the existing musical institutions. Maybe in 80 to 100 years it will seem obvious – most people listen to music downloaded from the Internet – composers will naturally evolve in the direction that addresses that need.


    But Wait!

    I can already hear the counter-argument: “But wait! It is the conductor and the performers who bring their experience, skill and interpretation to a piece – an irreplaceable element.” And, as a player and composer, I absolutely agree. When a piece of mine is performed, the musicians always improve on what I have written and I doubt their unique contribution can ever be digitized. I love writing for performance and the result is always greater than the sum of its parts. And live musical performance will continue just as calligraphy, hand-blown glass and other handicrafts continue despite being replaced by industrial equivalents.


    Survival of performed music is not really the issue – but its importance in the forward movement of musical ideas will be. Electro-acoustic music can now be created for the hearing without needing to be performed. Just as happened 500 years ago with the printed word, the necessity of institutional support has been removed from the realization of new music so it will be the ideas and content of that music that will assume greater importance. Just as the impulse for scientific progress can be traced to the unexpected effects of the printing press, the musical arts will be able to develop and grow in new directions via the Internet. The forward progress of music will no longer be captive to the traditional processes of commission, composition, interpretation and performance.


    So what will the future bring? If the history of the printing press is any guide, we may still be years away from seeing the full effect of the Internet on the arts and the unintended effects may well surprise us. Existing musical institutions are sure to continue – the Roman Catholic Church, after all, survived Luther and the Protestant schism. No one expects the symphony orchestra to disappear or that academic institutions will stop teaching music. But just as Gutenberg freed ideas to have an independent existence in print, so will the Internet provide a way for musicians to advance their art outside of the control and influence of the traditional institutions. And what could be more exciting than that?



    Kenneth Woods article on scores:


    ‘The Invention of the Printing Press and its Effects’ from The Flow of History


    ‘The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead’ By James A. Dewar


  • You give good advice !!!

    Fredrick zinos said:

    In a sense another of Stravisnky's comments may apply here:


     "Write whatever you want. Get is commissioned later."


     My personal opinon is that you will do your best work when you write in a style, or styles, that are consistent with your own instincts and musical intelligence.


    Your instincts may change with time.


    If you wish to impress; I think you have to ask who it is you are writing for

    1) General audience (movie music, advertising jingles, Mantovani, Pink Floyd etc)

    2) Reasonably sophisticated concert-going audience (tonal but fairly aggressive- melody and harmonic language count)

    3) Your friends (you know what they like)

    4) Yourself (see above)

    5) A handful of university professors ( in which case your music can be total gibberish as long as you can provide an explanation in 45,000,000 words or less, for the reason for each screach)




    The problem is that each generation has been inspired by the last, but after the atonal phase, how do you build on that?


    I think that people have correctly answered and said the only way is going a few steps back into tonality again and finding inspiration elsewhere, be it pop or jazz.


    I have to say that there aren't many composers out there now who really excite the educated (I know that's an elitist term) music lover.


    I think that classical music has never had less direction - but you could argue that in a consumerist age, choice and variety are great things.


    Personally I prefer a more unified music culture - it leads to "schools of composition" who really refine their craft, just like the great schools of art, or the romantic poets.


    so long as modern composers are all doing their own things and having fun, that's great in one sense.


    but we'll never have a great musical tradition like the Baroque amidst this "luxury of diversity".


    and the end result is that classical music continues to have no discernible direction.


    too much choice can be a bad thing...


    I appreciate a lot of avant-garde classical music. I think it's great to experiment, and to push the boundaries of what is possible. At the same time, however, I think that the intention of any piece of music should be to communicate something, and I feel that a lot of new music doesn't achieve this goal, or if it does it's like an inside joke- understood by only a few people. Here is a bit of an article by Joe Queenan:


    "During a radio interview between acts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a famous singer recently said she could not understand why audiences were so reluctant to listen to new music, given that they were more than ready to attend sporting events whose outcome was uncertain. It was a daft analogy. Having spent most of the last century writing music few people were expected to understand, much less enjoy, the high priests of music were now portrayed as innocent victims of the public's lack of imagination. If they don't know in advance whether Nadal or Federer is going to win, but still love Wimbledon, why don't they enjoy it when an enraged percussionist plays a series of brutal, fragmented chords on his electric marimba? What's wrong with them?

    The reason the sports analogy fails is because when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 - but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game."


    The rest of the article can be found here:




    One question that I'd like to raise is this: Why is there so much federal funding via the National Endowment for the Arts for a genre of music that so few people listen to?




  • classical music to me is much like any other ART....


    you have your masters... davinci, michaelangelo, rembrandt, etc etc...


    is the mona lisa "dead"?? No... plenty of people look at it, and think its swell. Oddly enoguh, those masters didnt just paint "anything"... they had structure too... the last supper is laid out like a "cross", there were other structures they used too...


    what serious realism or romantic type artist will not study these masterworks? WHy woul not musical artists study these structures and techniques the masters used?


    for myself, I really dont "get" a lot of modern art. A painting of a can of chicken noodle soup, well, thats just crap to ME, but a lot of others "get him". Ultra modern "artists" ? God, people have taken POOP and made it into sculpture and clear coated it, and it was on display and sold well. *urp*


    when I was forst reading about music theory, I ran across academic types, and famous ones, saying things like "finally, tonality is DEAD, we can move PAST it, god thank you" and "oh geez, another BOR-ing tonal piece... how trite..."


    so, i went to hear something THAT academic had made. Surely it was fantastic, i thought... know what? I could not find anything by doctor professor whosits. not ONE TRACK could I find and download to hear his wisdom...


    *washes hands dramatically*


    as long as we have big budget movies, and people playing cellos locally in the city... we will have classical music. SOme tonal, some more modern... and everyone is a critic, because they know if they like it or not.


    write what YOU want to hear, what you like to listen to after its done... history will decide what was important enough to listen to and save down thru the ages.


    I think of "2-live crew" as the musical equivalent of "ultra modern art" where the "artist" sprays a canvas with paint ball gun, or just wipes his brush off on it... but, what do I know... they sold millions. WIll it be studied and played 500 years from now? GOD, I hope not, but you never know...




  • The direction of classical Music?


    Thank you very much for this thread, this question has caused a Composer’s Block for nearly ten years!


    After a new composition was commissioned recently, I have been taken a few walks, brainstorming on exactly this subject. Just some thoughts, not necessarily in order of importance. (I am aware of the fact that most of my thoughts are mentioned before, but my own phrases helped me out on this. Maybe they can be of some help for some of you, too - although I am also aware of my imperfect English.)


    • Between 20th/21th century avant-garde music on one hand, and music that is considered by most people as meaningful on the other hand, an immense gap has been arisen. It is almost impossible to compose convincingly in the middle of this gap, balancing on a narrow rope, laughed at and scorned by people standing at both sides. Don’t try this at home!
    • Frank Martin, one of the very few composers who actually succeeded in staying upright on this narrow rope, wrote: “An artist chasing originality, will eventually find himself in an area outside art.” Yes, indeed. I’ve “experienced” a composition for two cars, that produced a wide range of noises, including slamming doors and squeaky windshield wipers. I won’t go into a composition for three balloons. That wasn’t art, that was circus.
    • It wasn’t just composers alone that asked themselves the question of “direction” in the past century (or even centuries). We’ve seen incomprehensible novels, theater plays, and movies. In painting, even paint became unfashionable. But all other art forms rediscovered the importance of eloquence, of expressiveness. The importance of using a language that can be comprehended by human beings, not only by gods. Novels do have storylines again, as do Art House movies. Classical music is the only art form that keeps asking itself about its direction, about the importance of extreme originality above intelligibility. It’s about time it stops doing that, like other art forms have stopped doing that.
    • The boundaries of what can be really understood by even skilled musicians, have been reached a long time ago. Schumann wrote, about Chopin’s op. 35 sonata, 4th movement (Finale. Presto): “This is not music”. What’s even more: some years ago, when I studied this masterpiece myself, very slowly, as a pianist should, a fellow musician was convinced I practiced a Schönberg piece. She just couldn’t get what was going on in this composition. We are talking about a piece in unison, written in 1839! (I advise you to listen to it, and ask yourself why you should want to be more “avant-garde” than Chopin. This will do perfectly: Chopin Sonate op. 35 Finale, Presto with score)
    • On the other hand, it is not possible to put fewer notes in your composition than John Cage did in his 4’33”. Don’t even try to stretch this boundary a little bit further, in order to be even more original.
    • All art is, in essence, communication. And in all human communication, it is ineffective to push too hard. Saying aloud: “Look at me, I’m very original, and, therefore, very special and interesting!” - it just doesn’t work. I once met a girl that was desperately trying to be interesting. She told me that she could read aura’s, and, when that didn’t convince me, told me that she could talk to the deceased in the other world. Instead of finding her more and more interesting, I fled away from her.
    • Bach didn’t ask himself the question of the direction of classical music. And for me, Bach is the greatest.

    My conclusion: I won’t ask myself this question anymore. I’m only trying to find my own voice from now on. That problem is interesting enough for me!

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