October 2015 | 2 Music Tips for Teachers | 20th-Century Music

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

20th-Century Music

By Nina Pinzarrone

Tip 1
The 20th century ushered in a new era in music composition, though Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and others continued to write in a Romantic style.

Composers began using non-symmetrical (5/4, 7/4, 11/4, 13/5) rather than traditional (2/4, 3/4, 4/4) meters and varying time signatures within a composition, often from bar to bar (as in Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring). Instead of regular melodic phrasing (4- and 8-bar phrases), composers began to use irregular phrasing; the melodic range began to include wide leaps and dissonant intervals. Harmony moved away from traditional major and minor keys to include polytonality (two or more differing chords played together, as in Stravinsky’s 1911 Petrushka), atonality (no obvious key or harmony), and medieval modes.

Tip 2
Major 20th-century movements include neoclassicism, minimalism, and experimental music.

Neoclassicism (circa 1920s–1950s) discarded Romantic emotionalism, emphasizing formal structure and a return to classical and baroque aesthetic principles. Two examples are Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1920), choreographed by Massine, and Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments (1940), choreographed by Balanchine in 1946.

Minimalism tends to use limited materials—only a few notes, phrases, or instruments—and short, repetitive musical motifs. Arising in New York in the 1950s and 1960s with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams, it has inspired many choreographers; a notable example is Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 1982 Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich.

Experimental music, pioneered by John Cage in the 1940s, is intended to be unpredictable—every performance differs. Cage used chance operations (like coin tossing), prolonged silences, “prepared” pianos (objects inserted between the strings change the sound), tape loops, synthesizers, computers, and sounds from running water and slamming doors. He and Merce Cunningham collaborated on many dance works, including Antic Meet (1958).


Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.