‘New Music’ is not a genre

I feel like the words ‘new music’ have come to mean a specific genre of music. Yes, it’s mostly synonymous with ‘Contemporary Western Art Music’, but I think the definition is often a bit beyond even that.

A newly written piece of music using more traditional musical ideas from Western art music is often ascribed a weird place of limbo; It’s a newly written work, but one in a well established musical style or genre.

Well, technically ‘new music’ is just new + music. Music written recently.

But because a lot of musical scholarship has tended to focuses on the times when composers did something unexpected, pushed the boundaries, and unintentionally pioneered the new, we have come to, with the Art Music genre, place a lot of emphasis on this as a defining feature of a great composer. It’s good to remember, however, that probably 90% most of Beethoven’s works were fairly conventional, traditional and classical, if still distinctly Beethoven. Perhaps too much emphasis has been put on the times where composers deviate from the norm, rather than seeing the greater whole of their output.

Regardless of why, ‘New Music’ in the art music genre, is often not simply categorised as newly written music. A piece written in 2013 that very convincingly sounds like Mozart, is unlikely to be thought of as ‘new music’ by a lot of people despite its recent composition date.

A lot of arguments happen about what ‘new music’ ought to be – for example, whether it should be tonal or atonal – and I think a big part of this is because a lot of different sub genres are trying to stake out their claim to bad terminology.

Bad labels lead to bad thinking.
If you’ve ever studied music from a cultural foreign to your own, you have likely had to revise your definitions of music to accommodate music that is very different to your own. Even more telling perhaps is when things that sound clearly musical to you are not thought of as music in another culture.

While it’s ridiculously unlikely that the way people think of new music is going to change just because I speculate that it’s a bad name, I nevertheless think we need a better bracket term for all kinds of recently written music in the Western Art Music genre… A ‘New Release’ type of title, which covers the multitude of sub genres without stylistic preference.

‘New Music’ shouldn’t be a style or genre, but primarily description of composition date of the work.

Some better ways of categorising sub-genres would be helpful too…

Is the composer living?
Does the music use traditional harmony – Triadic or Non-triadic?
Does the music place the most emphasis on: Melody & Harmony; Timbre; Process; Soundscape; etc.
And so forth.

Obviously there are not going to always be clear answers, but it’s still better than trying to lump everything into ‘new music’ where it can get a bit rowdy without assigned seating.

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