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 lumptogether 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.