As an introduction, I'm not talking about contemporary pop music. I'm doing a brief write-up on contemporary art music written in the past 25 years.

The very vague definition of contemporary art music that my assignment gives is: "music written in the last 25 years, that isn't necessarily well know, but has a lasting effect, and what it can speak to future generations about us and music today."

I'm nervous on what constitutes "art music" and not "pop music" as it's important to my assignment. I've been looking at:

Beck - "Paper Tiger" (Sea Change 2002)

-> Great song with lots of traditional instrumentals, but it's a directly inspired by the song "Melody" by Serge Gainsbourg (Histoire de Melody Nelson 1971). So it's not exactly an original composition within the last 25 years. And again, it could be considered pop music.

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - "Black", "The Gambling Priest", "Her Hollow Ways", "Roman Blue" (Rome 2011)

-> This album is very striking and complex, and more in line with what I think my professor is looking for. But is it contemporary art music? A quick search says it's based on Italian spaghetti westerns.

I would greatly appreciate some suggestions of current contemporary art composers and music.

  • 1
    Why not keep it simple: It's music produced for the sake of the art of music, as opposed to commercial or utilitarian purposes.
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 1, 2017 at 23:53

3 Answers 3


I'm not sure where you got spaghetti westerns from, but the examples you've given in your question are generally considered to be on the pop side of things.

This dichotomy of "pop vs. classical" or "art music vs. pop music" and the question of what defines those things is truly a complicated one in my mind; in that nearly any definition you can come up with is going to cause disagreement, and many hold that the dichotomy is a false one to begin with.

Nevertheless, there are some distinct and undeniable cultural strokes out there, and the terms continue to be useful despite some artists trying their absolute hardest to obliterate the dividing line, or at least what it means to them.

User filzilla has already posted an excellent overview of some of the most important music written in the past few decades, so rather than rehash or add to that, I'm going to try to speak to the definition side of the question in some more concrete terms and attempt to provide some backstory.

Many people are aware that a tradition exists of "classical" music; the instrumentalists and singers who go to conservatory to study and build their skills so they can sing at the opera or play in an orchestra all of the well-worn chestnuts by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and the rest of them. What fewer people are aware of, however, is that there is a stylistic lineage in this tradition that has stretched unbroken across time from these household-name composers of old to the present day. Now, this lineage was a fairly tightly-wound braid up until the middle of the 20th century, when some key styles started to diverge from one another before everything shattered into a thousand pieces in the 1970s (the "stellar nursery" mentioned in filzilla's answer). In other words, it used to be relatively easy to track what the style of present-day music was and where it was headed, but these days no composer really feels beholden to follow in the stylistic footsteps of their teacher, as was previously the norm. The lineage, though now fragmented, it still there; but now new influences are being integrated faster and in more places than we can really keep track of for art music on the whole.

In light of this, here are some of the (hopefully) least contentious "traditions" that still serve to differentiate "art music" from "pop music", understanding that there are always exceptions:

  • Art music is written so that a piece or work makes an artistic statement and is seen as the artistic product, not the album, as tends to be the case with pop music. There are no "singles" in art music.
  • Art music tends to have a division of labor present between the composer and performer. As such, performers must be trained to the highest possible level of musicianship and technique so they are capable of playing whatever is thrown at them. Composer-performers exist, certainly, both in the past and present, but do tend to have the same kind of training.
  • Also in the division of labor vein, composers tend to be supported monetarily by commissions, royalties, grants, and sale or rental of performance materials (sheet music), while performers tend to be supported by recording album contracts and the performances themselves. Contrast with pop music, where one artist (often aided by a producer) writes, performs, records, and tours all at once.
  • If you're at the Grammys or something else that calls itself the "music industry", it's probably pop music. If the MacArthur Foundation or someone else is giving you free money just so you can keep making music (without taking a cut of your royalties), it's probably art music.
  • With the obvious exception of opera, a performance of art music is generally focused almost entirely upon the music itself. There is no mood lighting, the stage is bare without distractions, the performers are dressed simply and/or elegantly (usually to provide no distractions). Pop music tends to be focused upon five-sensory spectacular impact. Music videos! Costumes! Props! A dress made of meat! Synchronized hip gyration!

Of course, immediately upon coming up with some potential criteria, one starts thinking of exceptions, and I truly mean that for all of the items above. The lines are continually being blurred between concert music, opera, and performance art, people are making pop music that's artistically fascinating and art music that sounds like pop music, and it's impossible to pose any definition without someone writing a very long blog post about why your definition is wrong!

I recently spent an entire semester in a class, the aim of which was to pose this very question; and while much excellent discussion was had, we never really came up with a truly reliable answer (and that was the point). At the end of the day, the musicians and composers and audience members that create and appreciate music out there tend to classify themselves and who they musically associate with on their own, and those who appreciate "both" kinds of music either create their own definitions, classify on a case-by-case basis, or refuse the dichotomy outright.

But of course, the term "contemporary art music" still has enough meaning that the people on this site immediately know exactly what you're talking about, so there must be something, right?

  • Both you and @filzilla provided very good answers. I ended up picking a work by John Cage, called "Eighty". I would say now that the two examples I mentioned in my question are cross-over hybrids of art and pop, which I think makes a very attractive combination. With regard to the second, it does venture more into legit art with Daniele Luppi being a serious composer inspired spag. west. Beck did an art project too. Would you consider film scores art music?
    – user10329
    Apr 20, 2014 at 1:33
  • 1
    @user10329 I would agree that the Cage piece is a great example. The examples in your question are certainly on the artistic side of pop, but I think you would find most people classify them differently from the likes of the composers in filzilla's answer. Film score composers are an interesting case -- they usually possess the same technical skill level as art music composers, but work within a fairly prescribed style. Those that distinguish themselves with their own style are typically more accepted into the ranks of other art music composers.
    – NReilingh
    Apr 20, 2014 at 2:48
  • (IMHO) Excellent answer NReilingh and thank you for the acknowledgments (awe shucks). This question brings me back to a graduate composition seminar with composer Will Gay Bottje so many years ago. Will asked us to define music (any music). My favorite answer came from a pal, Bryce Robbley (unfortunately he passed on years ago). Bryce said, "Music is Godzilla". I wish I had come up with that one. It says it all. NReilingh thank you too about mentioning the blurring lines. My short list of "blur stars": Frank Zappa, Brain Eno, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Enya, and Kraftwerk.
    – filzilla
    Apr 21, 2014 at 16:53
  • @user10329, I am both passionate about cinema and music, and I believe there are many composers that have created music for cinema to a new level. My short list of composers for you to check out in this arena: Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, Angelo Badalamenti, Clint Eastwood, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Henry Mancini, James Horner, Quincy Jones, Ry Cooder, Toru Takemitsu, Vangelis, and Charlie Chaplin.
    – filzilla
    Apr 21, 2014 at 17:12
  • ...want to add: Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Artie Shaw, and Duke Ellington. Too many to list. :>
    – filzilla
    Apr 21, 2014 at 17:22

"What defines “contemporary art music”?"

Music that engages the listener beyond the expected and breaking new ground with innovation and passion for which can only be described as amazing. Often this music introduces new instruments or new techniques for traditional instruments as well as presenting traditional instruments in new ways, e.g. John Cage prepared piano. This music may challenge any of the traditional foundations of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure, dynamics, notation, timbre, length, size, and shape while perfectly standing on its own.

This area of music is like a nebula preparing to give birth to a galaxy, a stellar nursery, but there is nothing childish or infantile about it. What some may call experimental, those who understand it will tell you it is beyond the lab and ready for ingestion. In short, a way of making the obscure clear and the unstable profoundly substantial.

"I would greatly appreciate some suggestions on current contemporary art composers and music."

Here is my short list of contemporary art music composers of the last 25 years. No special order, and my apologies to the ones I omitted to keep this short.

Robert Ashley: Many operas for television including "Celestial Excursions" (2003)

David Behrman: "My Dear Siegfried" XI Records, 2005 and many other electronic pieces.

John Adams: "On the Transmigration of Souls" (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003) and many other amazing works including operas:

>>> more than 25 years ago but well known <<< (1987) Nixon in China

(1991) The Death of Klinghoffer
(1995) I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
(2000) El Niño (opera-oratorio)
(2005) Doctor Atomic
(2006) A Flowering Tree
(2012) The Gospel According to the Other Mary (opera-oratorio)

Meredith Monk: A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. Her recent works include "Possible Sky" for orchestra and voices (commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas for the New World Symphony, 2003) and "Stringsongs" for string quartet (commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, 2004).

John Luther Adams: 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition "Become Ocean".

Philip Glass: Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards.

Terry Riley: 2008: "Banana Humberto", piano concerto with Paul Dresher Ensemble and many other great works.

Steve Reich: 2009 Pulitzer Prize, “Double Sextet" and many other wonderful works.

Rhys Chatham: He is best known for his guitar orchestra compositions, "A Secret Rose" (for 100 electric guitars) and "A Crimson Grail For 200 Electric Guitars" performed live at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York City, August, 2009.

Please search Google and Youtube for each of these composers so you can see and hear their works performed. This represents a wide range of what is going on in new music so I am hopeful you'll find a piece worthy of your analysis.

Also, you might want to review all the Pulitzer Prizes for composition in the last 25 years, MacArthur Foundation awards, and other prestigious awards in this field for other interesting and worthy composers.

  • I'm going to complain about your list, because it's all 'downtown'. No mention of Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt or someone of their ilk? Feb 27, 2021 at 9:14
  • Thank you for your comment, but if you read carefully I already mentioned this was not an inclusive list by any means, "Here is my short list of contemporary art music composers of the last 25 years. No special order, and my apologies to the ones I omitted to keep this short." Certainly Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and many many more can be easily included in this list.
    – filzilla
    Feb 28, 2021 at 20:22

Some worthy contemporary composers outside USA: Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Edith Canat de Chizy, Shih-Hui Chen, Unsuk Chin, Chaya Czernowin, Maija Einfelde, Sofia Gubaidulina, Adriana Hölszky, Liza Lim, Onute Narbutaite, Olga Neuwirth, Kaija Saariaho, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Isidora Zebeljan. As you can see, one of the characteristics of contemporary music is its universality. It used to be Europeans composers in the past, but the Art of doing great Works is now in every Continent.

  • 1
    Your list contains 8 Europeans, two from former USSR, one Korean, one Taiwanese (all four of whom live and work in Germany or the USA), one Israeli and one Australian. In classical music, those are the usual suspects; hardly the "universality" that you claim. South America, Africa, the Arab world, India... are all missing from your list of composers from "every continent". But maybe that's because you accidentally deleted all the male composers from this alphabetical list when you copy/pasted it?
    – New User
    Mar 4, 2021 at 0:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.