I was wondering why there are multiple genres of modern era music, for example Minimalism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Serialism and Futurism.

This variety of different styles wasn't present during the earlier periods, i.e. the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.

Why did this change in the 20th century?

  • Among modern (or at least 20th-21st-century) genres, there's also jazz (music theory textbooks will occasionally actually give a shout-out to this one), pop, rock, heavy metal, ragtime, EDM, other electronic music genres, reggae, movie soundtrack, the list goes on....
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented May 24, 2022 at 4:10
  • 1
    I'd like to see you argue with an 18th-century resident that their era doesn't have a multitude of musical styles! They'd probably think you were having them on. Commented May 24, 2022 at 7:02
  • I think that the sheer total population of the planet has to be given some credit here, too. Commented May 25, 2022 at 1:21

4 Answers 4


Why the 20th-century explosion of styles/genres

Four major developments happened as the 20th century approached and developed through WWII:

  1. City-States gave way to the modern conception of Countries. Along with that, monarchies gave way to more democratic forms of rule.
  2. Because of the "softening" of border, and the development of communication and travel, it became easier for composers to explore formerly unfamiliar types of music.
  3. Among Western composers (and perhaps others, but my knowledge is limited to the West), there was a feeling that Tonality had run its course, and they were searching for new models for creating music.
  4. Especially in the wake of WWII, Western composers (again, within the limits of my experience) were specifically looking to reject the tenets, musically and morally, of earlier music.

All of these factors combined to give composers immense flexibility to experiment and seek new, idiosyncratic ways of creating and organizing music, pushing the boundaries of what could be considered music, and debating the underlying purpose of music.

Why the prior relative limitation of styles/genres

In earlier times, the conception of art, and what could be considered art, was more limited. There were specific aims toward "beauty" and "structure", and these were culturally defined on comparatively rigid terms.

In Western music, for many centuries, The Church gave strict guidelines for the parameters within which music could be created. The system which eventually emerged out of these strictures and traditions, Tonality, plus the pressures of fashion, status, and limited ability to absorb other musics, kept the genres relatively limited.

However, it is also the case, that differences between regional musics were more starkly defined. And what we now lump together as a sort of single "classical" genre, was, at the time, considered highly different musics. Sonatas, Oratorios, Chorales, Symphonies, many different types of dances, Masses, ... were all considered highly distinct, each adhering to certain conventions.


It's perhaps misleading to say that there are more different styles/genres today than "yesterday." While it may be true, there was still a plethora of differentiated musics historically. Historically, the styles/genres tended to be defined more by function and location, plus form; whereas, now genres are somewhat more defined by form, plus function and location.

So the number of styles/genres may be similar or different, but they are defined on different terms, and access to them is far more available now than "then".


You only have a point if you think that "baroque" is one style. In truth there are clear differences between English, French, Italian baroque. Both in writing and in performing.

But yeah, modern life is a lot faster paced, so styles can develop on the square millimeter. Also, people are a lot more obsessed with naming styles. Breakbeat vs broken beat, seriously?


The pace of change of musical styles has picked up over time. Way back, a style lasted for 300 years. Then 150 years. Then 75 years. I guess this is due, as Aaron explained, to increased cultural exchange over time.

It's not just music, though. Music history is connected to the history of other arts, e.g. painting, architecture.

Note that as tonality expanded (e.g. more complex chords and harmonies), and as tonality started to be rejected, the possibilities became more varied and numerous. This helps us understand that some composers leaned towards expressionism, some towards impressionism, etc.

Also take into account that a composer experimenting in a particular style had an easier time finding like-minded pioneering composers, due to increased travel and cultural exchange.

  • Rather like just about everything else has 'accelerated' (and diversified) - technology, industry, medical advances, etc. Labelled 'progress', not always literally so...
    – Tim
    Commented May 24, 2022 at 9:17

That's an interesting view, but perhaps this wouldn't be true if you looked across the globe. Certainly the styles of music in Japan, China, Africa, etc. were quite different than the classical origins in Europe.

I also think there weren't the variety of instruments available that also lends itself to music development. The mention of EDM makes me think that style of music wasn't even possible before the availability of electronic music and amplification.

  • They were different from European styles, but they were similar to each other, within each culture, AFAIK. Nowadays even within subcultures you can find genre and style competition. Commented May 25, 2022 at 1:20
  • Yes, likely a result more of travel and communication. I suppose literature, science, etc. all would track something similar. Languages can die out as populations are no longer isolated and absorb into a larger population, so less variety.
    – lschofield
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 21:57

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