Without going into historical detail, contemporary or modern classical music broadly refers to post-1945 classical music forms. This is the type of music that traces its primary lineage to classical composers from the 20th century or earlier rather than genres such as pop, jazz, folk or rock.

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However, this does not stop modern classical musicians from experimenting and mixing up classical music with different genres. Classical music has gone through a lot of transformation, just as the world has, in response to cultural influences, technology and changing social norms. As a result, modern classical music is very broad, and includes sounds that range from confusing and strange to comfortable and nostalgic.

It’s no surprise that listening to modern classical music can be quite daunting, so it’s helpful to get some pointers from an insider. David Tanenbaum is an internationally acclaimed classical guitarist. He is also a recording artist and educator that is recognized as a leading proponent of modern classical music. He gives his tips for listening to modern classical pieces:

Before the music starts:

1. Do your research

Find out as much as you can about the composer and his or her influences. This will help you put a finger on what it is that you are about to listen to:

“First of all, like the world today, music is increasingly diverse. There are prevailing trends, but not one dominating international style, and that makes listening more challenging but also more interesting. So to navigate that morass a listener should first try to learn something about the composer and his or her influences. Via Gear Patrol

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2. Know your options

“Like in all of art, the creation of a piece of music involves myriad choices, and listeners should note what the big ones are. What’s the ensemble and why? What possibilities does this ensemble open up, and what does it eliminate?…” Via Gear Patrol

3. Get into the details

“What’s the structure? Is it big, small, multi-movement? Are there older forms like fugue or named movements? What’s the inspiration? First, is it programmatic or not? If it is based on writing or art, try to see or read the original, and read any program note the composer has provided. Finally, what’s this piece’s history? Is it a classic with a long performance history, like Le Marteau, or something brand new?” Via Gear Patrol

For the preliminaries, a great tip Tanenbaum offers is to treat modern classical music like you would a book or movie. The above questions will help you develop some context before you listen to the music.

As you listen to the music:

4. Sit back

music yoda
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A big challenge for new listeners is that they want to immediately understand the music, and get frustrated when they don’t. It’s always best to just sit back and let the music hit you, and not try to draw any conclusions about it immediately. You can only do that once you are familiar with the music, and that will need more than one listen.

“Once actually listening, the first piece of advice I would give is to not try too hard. When listening to a Mozart piano concerto, I think most listeners’ brains don’t go into overdrive right away, but rather they settle into the familiar style and perhaps relax…” Via Gear Patrol

5. Feel the rhythm

“My way in is almost always rhythm first. I want to feel how the music is moving — or if it is — in my body, not my head. Can I tap my foot to this, or better yet, do I want to tap my foot to it? I let my body move to the music if it wants to. So as not to disturb other listeners my toes are often very active within my shoes…” Via Gear Patrol

6. Now you can get into the detail

girl wearing earphones
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Are the melodies spiky or smooth? Is this growing into something else or hanging steady? How dense is it? How are the instruments relating to each other? What musical colors can I perceive? If this piece is new, does it describe living in the world today? Could it have been written 50 years ago? Via Gear Patrol

Keep in mind that the style matters. If you’re just starting out listening to modern classical music, you may find yourself fading in and out of attention quite often. Don’t take this as a rejection of the piece.

The initial buzz of recognizing harmonies and rhythms that are instantly relatable can quickly turn into frustration at the slow pace of change, but that’s okay. Lay-listeners should let themselves race ahead of it mentally, or fall behind and space out, and see if eventually they settle into its pace… Via Gear Patrol


Featured Image: Image Credit

Sextet, by Steve Reich (FULL PERFORMANCE)

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