What Is Contemporary Music? (Key Features & Examples)

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  • What is the difference between modern and contemporary music?
  • What is the difference between traditional and contemporary music?
  • We provide some examples of contemporary music

You may have heard the term contemporary music in several contexts before.

So, you may be wondering, exactly what is contemporary music?

The short answer is that contemporary music is any music that is current and being written in recent decades, as opposed to traditional or historic styles of music.

Contemporary music is a broad term that encompasses multiple genres.

In this article, we’ll also look at some of the common genres that people have in mind when they use the term contemporary music.

Contemporary vs Modern Music

Contemporary music and modern music can have different connotations.

While modern music can mean any music written since about the mid-1900s, contemporary music usually implies that the music was written more recently, or perhaps music by living composers.

Contemporary Classical Music

If you think about it, the term contemporary classical music can seem like an oxymoron.

How can something be both contemporary and classical? In short, contemporary classical music is what came after the Romantic era in European art music.

Contemporary classical music is not considered part of the popular music umbrella, and is sometimes even excluded from the common definition of contemporary music.

This is because some people view contemporary music as a synonym for popular music.

Despite this, contemporary classical music is a form of modern art music that many people still play, compose, and listen to.

In this sense, classical music written recently is a form of contemporary music.

When is the Contemporary Music Period in Classical Music?

The term contemporary classical music and modern classical music can be used interchangeably to refer to classical music that is written today.

Depending on the context, the start of the contemporary period in classical music can range from music written in the last twenty years to any classical music written since 1900!

How can there be such a range in the definition of modern classical music?

Starting in the early 1900s, classical composers began writing music that threw out much of the harmonic, melodic, and formal traditions established in the Classical and Romantic eras of music.

Thus, some music scholars lump together all classical music since that time as modern classical music.

Harmonic Characteristics of Contemporary Classical Music

When you listen to music from the Classical or Romantic periods, you’ll notice pieces have melodies that are easy to recognize.

Classical music tends to use mostly chords from the home key (aka diatonic chords) with some key changes and occasional chords from other keys. Romantic music includes more chromatic harmonies, but it still has distinctive melodies.

On the contrary, modern classical music can be completely chromatic to the point there is no key to the song. Modern classical music may not have a melody at all.

Some modern classical music uses all twelve pitches in Western music’s chromatic scale. It may even be structured around playing all twelve pitches in a particular order, which is known as serialism.

On the other hand, many contemporary classical composers have now returned to writing music that has more recognizable melodies.

Today, there are contemporary composers who ride the line between the classical and the popular. Film composers are one such example.

What Instruments Are Used in Contemporary Classical Music?

Contemporary classical music tends to use instruments associated with a symphony orchestra rather than electric guitars, drums, and synthesizers, as in pop and rock music.

Common instruments in contemporary classical music are strings, piano, woodwinds, brass, and orchestral percussion instruments. 

However, there are many examples of electric guitars as well as synthesizers in contemporary classical music, especially in classical-influenced film scores.

In a contemporary classical context, these instruments are typically accompanied by an orchestra or a smaller ensemble of orchestral instruments.

An example of a contemporary classical piece that uses both orchestra and electric bass is Victor Wooten’s bass concerto, La Lección Tres.

Other Contemporary Music Styles

There are many other styles of contemporary music. In fact, the term contemporary music can be used to refer mainly to other modern genres besides classical.

Contemporary Jazz Music

Jazz originated in the American South in the early 20th century. Blues music came a little before jazz, but both are related.

Since the beginning of jazz, many different sub-genres have formed such as big band, bebop, free jazz, smooth jazz, and jazz fusion. In some ways, all jazz music could be considered contemporary music. Because of this, if you see the term ‘Contemporary Jazz’ used, it’s most likely referring to jazz music since the 90s.

Characteristics of Jazz

Jazz is an extremely diverse genre, but all sub-genres have certain commonalities.

Jazz emphasizes improvisation rather than only playing the exact notes a composer writes on a score, as in classical music. Jazz also has a lot of syncopation on top of a strong rhythmic pulse.

One of the greatest jazz albums is Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which is an example of modal jazz.

Instruments Used in Jazz

Traditionally, jazz has featured brass instruments, saxophones, upright bass, piano, drum set, and/or a solo or duet vocal.

However, jazz fusion in particular, added to the instrumentation, often featuring electric bass and guitar as well as keyboards and synthesizers.

There are even examples of symphonic jazz that use a classical orchestra, such as Swing Symphony by Wynton Marsalis.

What is Contemporary Jazz?

Today, the term contemporary jazz refers to jazz of all styles composed in the last few decades.

Jazz fusion has reached the widest audience during this time, although contemporary artists are still making jazz in other sub-genres as well.

Contemporary jazz most often refers more to jazz that was recently composed rather than jazz of a particular style.

What other genres did jazz influence?

In addition to being vibrant genres in their own rights today, jazz and blues also influenced most other styles of contemporary music from the last century.

The jazz and blues influence is perhaps most evident in rock music, R&B, and hip-hop.

Pop Music

Popular music is another term for contemporary music with a broad definition. But simply put, pop music is most of the music on the Top-40 hits.

Popular music can include jazz, blues, rock, pop, country, hip hop, dance music, and everything else that isn’t classical music or folk music.

The term pop music usually refers to a sub-genre of popular music characterized by catchy melodies, a strong beat, and an appeal to a broad audience.

How Popular Music Differs From Folk Music

Traditional folk music includes spirituals, hymns, and folk tunes. Since this type of music has been around for hundreds of years in some cases, it is not considered contemporary.

Nevertheless, contemporary genres such as jazz and country music can be heavily influenced by these traditional styles.

Today, the term ‘Folk Music’ can refer to a type of contemporary music that incorporates traditional instruments like acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass.

These contemporary folk artists have influences from traditional folk music, rock, and blues, but they write original, contemporary songs.

Hence, folk as a genre today doesn’t necessarily mean traditional folk music.

An example of a contemporary folk artist is Sarah Jarosz:

Summing Up

Simply put, contemporary music is any music written in recent decades and includes all styles of popular music.

This is opposed to ‘traditional’ music like classical and folk as well as ‘modern’ music which may not necessarily be contemporary.