On Listening to New Music

There was an interesting article posted on Allclassical FM‘s Facebook page today, asking “How are we to listen to New Music?” The article goes on to interview a composer asking if there’s more to “get” in New Music.

I think the best way to approach “new music” is to think about how it was conceived within the context it was written in.

Back in the day, Classical music was used as the entertainment of the time. Going to the symphony hall was equivalent to going to the movies, and the music was given attention accordingly. The Romantics aimed at the heart, so we listen to that music knowing it’s going to tug at our heartstrings. The Modernists had entirely different aims, and Schoenberg (literally) turned his back on the audience, despite trying to “liberate” dissonance. The Minimalists reacted against the formalism of the Second Viennese/Darmstadt schools with the reintroduction of tonality, repetition, and the pulse. 

So we listen to that music with this in mind. This in turn affects our expectations when we listen.

So what do we say about the newest of new music? How should we listen to it? It’s my belief that a lot of people make the mistake of listening to New Music with ears conditioned to listen to the classics and the Romantics, and thus listen with the wrong mode, context, and expectations in mind.  New Music is written at the end of a long lineage of battling ideas and conceptions of consonance, dissonance, form, tension and release, and so on. Many composers conscientiously chose to modify or even abandon the usual sign posts we’re used to hearing.  If we listen to this music with the expectations of things that won’t come, we come away feeling dissatisfied, like we’re missing something, like there’s something more to “get” or understand.

I don’t think there’s anything more to “get” in New Music than the classics. This is a false question.

I believe that this notion that there’s something to “get” in New Music is because there’s sometimes something that didn’t quite meet our expectations. We feel like we’re missing something because the music is sometimes very different than what we’re used to. Think about the difference between Schoenberg’s op.11 and Bach’s Jesu. Night and day, right? Schoenberg abandoned the tonal center, so when we approach that with tonal ears we feel like we’re missing something, and thus there’s something more we feel we need to “get.”



With Bach, there is firm, reassuring tonality, grounded within nature and within our expectations.



With Schoenberg, there is the absence of tonality replaced by intervallic consistency and a much more gestural approach to writing.

There is nothing more to get than usual. The only thing that changes is our expectations.


By Jay

Composer, guitarist, husband, father, pun enthusiast.

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