Listening to Modern Music

I want to jump back into blogging with a post about the challenges of modern music. Something that often comes up when talking about this music and how to approach it is why we find it so difficult to listen to. Since I am trying to provide ways to make this type of music more accessible, I find this to be a very interesting question, and one that merits some rumination.

Change is a scary thing; it can be good or bad, expected or unexpected, but it always represents a sort of unknown. Some people deal with change better than others, and there is always some backlash when a big, universal change occurs. Change in music has often been received poorly, and the veneration of great composers frequently takes place posthumously. It takes the populace a while to adjust; as the next big thing rolls in, they are busy still lauding the works of late composers.

I believe timbre (in the sense of soundprint) has a great deal to do with the way we approach and handle change in music. Classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries comes out of a long tradition, but the connections to the past are generally more difficult to draw. This was, in large part, intentional. Modern composers were reacting to, and against, the music of their forbearers in favor of new and experimental methods of dealing with sound.

Out went the luxuriating melodic lines and rich harmonic progressions. Instead, audiences came to face bizarre and random sounds, electronic manipulations, recorded noise, all purporting to be this thing we call music. And not only did this epic change come to pass, but each composer treated it differently. Some more experimental than others. Some playing with recorded sounds, others with electronics. Some pushing boundaries in entirely different directions, like minimalism or chance or mathematical formulas.

I think it’s these discrepancies that make dealing with modern music (both tonal and atonal) difficult. There is not so much a unifying aspect as a unified canon they are against. So amidst all this musical confusion, timbre can provide a way to listen outside of melody and harmony and those more “traditional” aspects from which composers are running.  Yes modern music is different, yes it can be confusing, but we do have the tools to listen!