Postmodern music

Postmodern music is either simply music of the postmodern era, or music that follows aesthetical and philosophical trends of postmodernism. As the name suggests, the postmodernist movement formed partly in reaction to modernism. Even so, postmodern music still does not primarily define itself in opposition to modernist music; this label is applied instead by critics and theorists.

Postmodern music is not a distinct musical style, but rather refers to music of the postmodern era. The terms "postmodern", "postmodernism", "postmodernist", and "postmodernity" are exasperating terms (Bertens 1995, 3). Indeed, postmodernists question the tight definitions and categories of academic disciplines, which they regard simply as the remnants of modernity (Rosenau 1992, 6–7).

The postmodernist musical attitude

Postmodernism in music is not a distinct musical style, but rather refers to music of the postmodern era. Postmodernist music, on the other hand, shares characteristics with postmodernist art—that is, art that comes after and reacts against modernism (see Modernism in Music).

Fredric Jameson, a major figure in the thinking on postmodernism and culture, calls postmodernism "the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism" (Jameson 1991, 46), meaning that, through globalization, postmodern culture is tied inextricably with capitalism (Mark Fisher, writing 20 years later, goes further, essentially calling it the sole cultural possibility (Fisher 2009, 4)). Drawing from Jameson and other theorists, David Beard and Kenneth Gloag argue that, in music, postmodernism is not just an attitude but also an inevitability in the current cultural climate of fragmentation (Beard and Gloag 2005, 141–45). As early as 1938, Theodor Adorno had already identified a trend toward the dissolution of "a culturally dominant set of values" (Beard and Gloag 2005, 141), citing the commodification of all genres as beginning of the end of genre or value distinctions in music (Adorno 2002, 293–95).

In some respects, Postmodern music could be categorized as simply the music of the postmodern era, or music that follows aesthetic and philosophical trends of postmodernism, but with Jameson in mind, it is clear these definitions are inadequate. As the name suggests, the postmodernist movement formed partly in reaction to the ideals of modernism, but in fact postmodern music is more to do with functionality and the effect of globalization than it is with a specific reaction, movement, or attitude (Beard and Gloag 2005, 142). In the face of capitalism, Jameson says, "It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place" (Jameson 1991, ix).

Jonathan Kramer posits the idea (following Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard) that postmodernism (including musical postmodernism) is less a surface style or historical period (i.e., condition) than an attitude. Kramer enumerates 16 (arguably subjective) "characteristics of postmodern music, by which I mean music that is understood in a postmodern manner, or that calls forth postmodern listening strategies, or that provides postmodern listening experiences, or that exhibits postmodern compositional practices." According to Kramer (2002, 16–17), postmodern music:

  1. is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension
  2. is, on some level and in some way, ironic
  3. does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present
  4. challenges barriers between 'high' and 'low' styles
  5. shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity
  6. questions the mutual exclusivity of elitist and populist values
  7. avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not want entire pieces to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold)
  8. considers music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts
  9. includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures
  10. considers technology not only as a way to preserve and transmit music but also as deeply implicated in the production and essence of music
  11. embraces contradictions
  12. distrusts binary oppositions
  13. includes fragmentations and discontinuities
  14. encompasses pluralism and eclecticism
  15. presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities
  16. locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers

Daniel Albright summarizes the main tendencies of musical postmodernism as (Albright 2004, 12):

  1. Bricolage
  2. Polystylism
  3. Randomness


One author has suggested that the emergence of postmodern music in popular music occurred in the late 1960s, influenced in part by psychedelic rock and one or more of the later Beatles albums (Sullivan 1995, 217). Beard and Gloag support this position, citing Jameson's theory that "the radical changes of musical styles and languages throughout the 1960s [are] now seen as a reflection of postmodernism" (Beard and Gloag 2005, 142; see also Harvey 1990). Others have placed the beginnings of postmodernism in the arts, with particular reference to music, at around 1930 (Karolyi 1994, 135; Meyer 1994, 331–32).

Musicians cited as important to postmodern music

Western art music ("classical") composers

"Popular music" performers

See also


  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2002. "On The Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening". In his Essays on Music, selected, with introductions, commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley, 288–317. Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22672-0.
  • Albright, Daniel. 2004. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0.
  • Beard, David, and Kenneth Gloag. 2005. Musicology: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-31692-7.
  • Berger, Arthur Asa. 2003. The Portable Postmodernist. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0313-5 (cloth); ISBN 0-7591-0314-3 (pbk).
  • Bertens, Hans. 1995. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-31692-7.
  • Born, Georgina. 1995. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
  • Burkholder, J. Peter. 1995. All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowings. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Carl, Robert. 1990. "Six Case Studies in New American Music: A Postmodern Portrait Gallery". College Music Symposium 30, no. 1 (Spring): 45–63.
  • Butler, Christopher. 1980. After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Cheong, Yew Choong. 2009. "An Introduction to the Solo Piano Works of Three Latin American Composers: Miguel del Águila, Tania León and Juan María Solare". DMA thesis. Morgantown: West Virginia University.
  • Connor, Steven. 2001. "The Decomposing Voice of Postmodern Music". New Literary History 32, no. 3: Voice and Human Experience (Summer): 467–83.
  • Danuser, Hermann. 1991. "Postmodernes Musikdenken—Lösung oder Flucht?". In Neue Musik im politischen Wandel: fünf Kongressbeiträge und drei Seminarberichte, edited by Hermann Danuser, 56–66. Mainz & New York: Schott. ISBN 3-7957-1772-8.
  • Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK, and Washington, DC: Zero Books. ISBN 978-1-84694-317-1.
  • Fox, Christopher. 2004. "Tempestuous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adès". The Musical Times 145, No. 1888 (Autumn): 41–56.
  • Gagné, Nicole V. 2012. Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music. Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-6765-6.
  • Geyh, Paula E. n.d. Postmodernism—Postmodernism in Literature and Art. Science Encyclopedia, (Accessed 8 July 2012).
  • Gloag, Kenneth. 2012. Postmodernism in Music. Cambridge Introductions to Music, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521151573.
  • Harrison, Max, Charles Fox, Eric Thacker, and Stuart Nicholson. 1999. The Essential Jazz Records: Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism. London: Mansell Publishing. ISBN 0-7201-1822-0 (cloth); ISBN 0-7201-1722-4 (pbk).
  • Harvey, D. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-16292-5.
  • Heilbroner, Robert L. 1961. The Future as History. New York: Grove Press.
  • Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-0929-7 (cloth); ISBN 0-8223-1090-2 (pbk).
  • Karolyi, Otto. 1994. Modern British Music: The Second British Musical Renaissance—From Elgar to P. Maxwell Davies. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8386-3532-6.
  • Kramer, Jonathan. 2002. "The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism." In Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, edited by Judy Lochhead and Joseph Aunder, 13–26. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-8153-3820-1 Reprinted from Current Musicology no. 66 (Spring 1999): 7–20.
  • Kutschke, Beate. 2010. "The Celebration of Beethoven’s Bicentennial in 1970: The Antiauthoritarian Movement and Its Impact on Radical Avant-garde and Postmodern Music in West Germany". The Musical Quarterly 93, nos. 3–4 (Fall-Winter): 560–615.
  • LeBaron, Ann. 2002. "Reflections of Surrealism in Postmodern Musics". In Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, edited by Judy Lochhead and Joseph Aunder, 27–74. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-8153-3820-1.
  • Mankowskaya, Nadia. 1993. "L'esthétique musicale et le postmodernisme". New Sound: International Magazine for Music, no. 1:91–100.
  • Meyer, Leonard B. 1994. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture, second edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-52143-5.
  • Morris, Geoffrey. 2009. "The Guitar Works of Aldo Clementi". Contemporary Music Review 28, no. 6 (Aldo Clementi: Mirror of time I): 559–86.
  • O'Reilly, Tim. 1994. "Bad Religion Takes Postmodern Punk Mainstream". Daily Princetonian 118, no. 4 (3 February): 10.
  • Ofenbauer, Christian. 1995. "Vom Faltenlegen: Versuch einer Lektüre von Pierre Boulez' Notation(s) I(1)". Musik-Konzepte, nos. 89–90:55–75.
  • Ortega y Gasset, José. 1932. The Revolt of the Masses. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31095-7 Online edition
  • Pasler, Jann. 2001. "Postmodernism." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers. Reprinted, Oxford Music Online, (accessed October 2, 2011). (subscription required)
  • Petrusëva, Nadežda Andreevna. 2003. "Новая форма в новейшей музыке" [The Formal Innovations of Postmodern Music]. Muzyka i vremâ: Ežemesâčnyj naučnyj kritiko-publicističeskij žurnal, no. 8: 45–48.
  • Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights,Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08619-2 (cloth); ISBN 0-691-02347-6 (pbk).
  • Sanches, Pedro Alexandre. 2000. Tropicalismo: Decadência Bonita do Samba. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial. ISBN 8585934549
  • Smart, Barry. 1993. Postmodernity. Key Ideas, series editor Peter Hamilton. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-06961-0.
  • Sullivan, Henry W. 1995. The Beatles with Lacan: Rock ‘n’ Roll as Requiem for the Modern Age. Sociocriticism: Literature, Society and History Series 4. New York: Lang. ISBN 0-8204-2183-9.
  • Varga, Bálint András, and Rossana Dalmonte. 1985. Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, translated and edited by David Osmond-Smith. London: Boyars. ISBN 0714528293.
  • Wellmer, Albrecht. 1991. The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics and Postmodernism, translated by David Midgley. Cambridge [Massachusetts]: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23160-3.

Further reading

  • Beverley, John. 1989. "The Ideology of Postmodern Music and Left Politics". Critical Quarterly 31, no. 1 (Spring): 40–56.
  • Edwards, George. 1991. "Music and Postmodernism". Partisan Review 58, no. 4 (Fall): 693–705. Reprinted in his Collected Essays on Modern and Classical Music, with a foreword by Fred Lerdahl and an afterword by Joseph Dubiel, 49–60. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8108-6203-6.
  • Hiekel, Jörn Peter. 2009. "Die Freiheit zum Staunen: Wirkungen und Weitungen von Lachenmanns Komponieren". Musik-Konzepte, no. 146 (July): 5–25.
  • Hurley, Andrew W. 2009. "Postnationalism, postmodernism and the German discourse(s) of Weltmusik". New Formations, no. 66 (Spring): 100–117.
  • Klemm, Eberhardt. 1987. "Nichts Neues unter der Sonne: Postmoderne". Musik und Gesellschaft 37, no. 8: 400–403.
  • Pickstock, Catherine. 2011. "Quasi una sonata: Modernism, Postmodernism, Religion, and Music". In Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology, edited and introduced by Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie, with an afterword by John D. Witvliet, 190–211. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-6277-8.
  • Siōpsī, Anastasia. 2010. "On the Various Roles of Tradition in 20th-Century Greek Art Music: The Case Study of Music Written for Ancient Dramas". In Простори модернизма: Опус Љубице Марић у контексту музике њеног времена, edited by Dejan Despić, Melita Milin, Dimitrije Stefanović, and Danica Petrović, 197–214. Naučni skupovi, no. 130; Odelenje za likovne umetnosti i muziku, no. 7. Belgrade: Srpska Akademija Nauka i Umetnosti. ISBN 978-86-7025-526-5.
  • Taylor, Anthony. 2010. "John Adams' Gnarly Buttons: Context and Analysis: I". The Clarinet 37, no. 2 (March): 72–76.
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