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Understanding The Differences Among Contemporary Classical Music Genres

Remember the halcyon days when musical genres had distinct lines? No one expected to hear a harpsichord in a Classical composition. Boundaries were clear. Sure, everyone had to keep clear the distinction between “Classical Music” (mid-1700s to early 1800s) and “classical music” (instrumental music from the Baroque period through today), but that was manageable.

Today’s world of countless musical genres can get confusing. People disagree how to define them. Is a post-modern composition a timeframe or style? Is there a difference between polystylism and eclectism, or are they synonyms? 

Adding to the complexity, contemporary composers often reject being categorized. They work in various styles, various mediums and drawing on a broad range of inspirations – not all of which are grounded in music. 

So here’s our narrow attempt to shed some light on some of the contemporary classical music genres. We’ve had to draw some boundaries of our own. We define “contemporary” classical music as a period of time starting around 1975. Yet our review is going to start with “Modernism,” due to its influence on contemporary classical music, either through rejection or re-invention of it. 


We’re going to touch on Modernism since it girds contemporary classical composition. The period of Modernism in classical music began in the 1890s, a time of significant artistic innovation, which reflected the technology advances being made at the time. This period has a range of different compositional styles of its own, but can be loosely categorized as styles deliberately breaking with the classical composition framework of the past to explore wider ideas of what constituted music. One of the great breaks from tradition was developing atonal or polytonal models that seemed designed to challenge whether good composition required a pleasant aesthetic. Composer Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique (also called “12-tone serialism”) typify this attitude. Schoenberg was both highly influential on other composers and highly criticized as well. 


While Modernism was a break with a tradition that came before it, Postmodernism stands as a rejection of both earlier traditionalism and the complex experimentation of Modernism. Many musicologists contend that postmodernist classical music isn’t a specific style, but rather a philosophy of composition that rejects the idea of objective standards in favor of a conception of reality that’s always socially and personally constructed. Others suggest the name merely delineates music composed in the years after Modernism, although they argue whether the Postmodernist period began in the late 1940s or 1960s. 

Music professor Daniel Albright attributed stylistic attributes to Postmodernist composition, although not all need be present in a single work. 

  • Expanding the scope of items from which music could be made, from such things as using traffic sounds or altering how instruments were played.
  • Injecting randomness into the composition process, such as using silence to highlight random sounds as John Cage did in 4’ 33”.
  • Embracing polystylism, which is deliberately drawing on a range of musical styles and traditions and mixing them into a single composition. This is broadly defined, thus composer Alexandre Danilevski, who liked to draw musical traditions from the High Middle Ages, is a postmodernist composer. 

Indeed, each of the following genres listed below can be considered Postmodernist classical schools but since the term is so far reaching, these genres are quite different from each other. 

Minimalism and Post-minimalism 

The minimalist style developed as a rejection of the highly textured Modernist compositions.  Minimalism is characterized by even dynamics, lack of embellishment and limited materials, whether in terms of instruments used or notes played. Here is Phillip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima”, VI as an example of minimalist composition. 

Post-minimalism is an extension of minimalism, but is distinguished from it by taking a less linear approach to composition. While minimalism relies heavily on repetition and iteration, post-minimalists are open to a broad range of cultural traditions, not just musical, and thus have a more expansive musical palette. Post-minimalist composer Elodie Lauten’s opera “The Death of Don Juan,” is a good example of this style. 


As the name implies, this genre is most deliberately defined by its approach of mixing up various cultural and historical influences into a musical composition. It can pull in nonclassical musical styles, like jazz, rock and folk music. Composer Judd Greenstein, who puts together different styles and instruments, often into a highly rhythmic work, is a good example of the polystylist genre. 

Yet polystylism is so broad, it also includes composers and works drawing on nonmusical elements. Examples include composer Andrew Norman, who is highly influenced by architecture. His works include “Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House” and “Frank’s House,” alluding to architect Frank Gehry. 

You can check out a range of contemporary composers here. Can you identify which genre they work in? Do they stick to just one genre? Perhaps the defining characteristic of contemporary classical music is the refusal to be rigidly categorized.

Top photo of Philip Glass by MITO SettembreMusica

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