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7.7: The Late Twentieth Century

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    Modern electronic inventions continue to change and shape our lives. Music has not been immune to these changes. Computers, synthesizers, and massive sound systems have become common throughout the western world. In this unit, we will touch on some of the important trends that started in the 1940s and 1950s and continue to the present. We will also look at an important genre, movie music!

    7.9.1 Musique Concrète

    Musique concrète (a French term meaning “concrete music”) is a type of electro-acoustic music that uses both electronically produced sounds (like synthesizers) and recorded natural sounds (like instruments, voices, and sounds from nature). Pierre Schaeffer (in the 1940s) was a leader in developing this technique. Unlike traditional composers, composers of musique concrète are not restricted to using rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, form, and other musical ele- ments. The video linked below offers an excellent narrative on musique concrète.

    Musique concrète

    Below is a link to one of Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète compositions.

    Pierre schaeffer, Études de bruits (1948)

    7.9.2 Elektronische Musik

    Elektronische Musik (German term meaning “electronic music”) is com- posed by manipulating only electronically-produced sounds (not recorded sounds.) Like Expressionism, both musique concrète and elektronische Musik did not last long as popular techniques. Karlheinz Stockhausen was a leader in the creation of elektronische Musik.

    The link below is to an example of elektronische Musik.

    Stockhausen: Kontakte (electronic version complete)

    7.9.3 Laptop Orchestras

    With the development of laptop computers, a new wave of interest has sprung up world-wide in electronic music of all types. Musicians can now easily link laptops together to form ensembles; they can also link laptops in other locations, even around the globe. Software is being developed that allows for all types of musique concrète and elektronische musik compositions and combinations. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra is a leader in this area of experimental composition and performance.

    Princeton laptop orchestra

    7.9.4 Film Music

    Although modern audiences may no longer visit the local symphony or opera house on a regular basis, they do visit the local movie theater. In this way, symphonic music lives on in our everyday lives in the form of music for film, as well as for television shows, commercials, and video games.

    More than any other form of media in the twentieth century, film has made an indelible mark on our culture. The first known public exhibition of film with ac- companying sound took place in Paris in 1900, but not until the 1920s did talking pictures, or “talkies,” become commercially viable. Inevitably, part of the magic of film is due to its marriage with music. After opera, film music was the next step in the evolution of music for drama. In fact, film music follows many of the same rules established by the nineteenth-century opera and before, such as the use of overtures, leitmotifs, and incidental music. Many of the most famous themes in the history of film are known throughout the world in the same way that an aria from a famous opera would have been known to the mass audiences of the previous century. For example, who of us cannot sing the theme from Star Wars?

    Unlike the music of forward-thinking twentieth-century composers such as Schoenberg and Webern, music for film is not designed to push musical boundaries; instead, it draws on compositional devices from across the vast history of Western music. Music for a film depicting a love story might rely on sweeping melodies reminiscent of Wagner or Tchaikovsky. A science fiction movie might draw on dense note clusters and unconventional synthesized sounds to evoke the strangeness of encountering beings from another world. A documentary might feature music that is emotionally detached, such as the twentieth-century minimalistic style of Phillip Glass. It all depends on what style best complements the visuals.

    The following example is one of the most famous melodies in cinema history, the main theme from Star Wars, composed by John Williams. Because Star Wars tells a story in a galaxy far, far away, its music should logically sound futuristic, but director George Lucas opted for an entirely different approach. He asked the film’s John Williams to compose something romantic in nature so as to ground the characters of this strange universe in something emotionally familiar. Williams achieved this goal by creating a musical landscape deeply rooted in the style of Wagner, especially in his use of heroic themes and leitmotifs. Listen to the example below and pay special note to the sense of adventure it evokes.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Composer: John Williams
    Composition: Star Wars Main Title
    Date: 1977
    Genre: Motion Picture Soundtrack
    Performing Forces: orchestra
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture


    Opening Fanfare: Use of perfect fourths to evoke heroism. Orchestral: trumpets and brass.
    Triplet figures create a sense of excitement.
    Opens on a loud tonic chord to convey strength.


    Main Theme.
    High brass alternating with strings. Heroic march.
    Strong tonal center.


    Transition to space battle music as Imperial Star Destroyer looms over a smaller ship.
    Ascending strings followed by lone flute solo and stabbing brass notes Floating time followed by jarring triplet figures.

    Moves towards dissonance to create sense of impending danger.


    Battle Music: Melody spells out a diminished chord, evoking conflict. Low brass takes over melody.
    Faster march creates a sense of urgency.
    Minor key depicts danger.


    Main theme returns.
    Melody switches to the French horns. Heroic march.
    Returns to major key.


    Leia’s Theme.
    Sweeping romantic melody in strings. Slow moving tempo.
    Lush romantic chords.

    4:06 Main Theme returns.
    4:39 Battle Theme returns.

    Closing Section (Coronation Theme). Full Orchestra.
    Slow and majestic.
    Ends on a strong tonic chord.

    We talked about leitmotifs in our chapter on nineteenth-century music. The music of Star Wars relies heavily on this technique, and most of its characters have their own unique themes, which appear in different forms throughout the movies. Perhaps the most famous of these leitmotifs is the “Force Theme.” The link below is a compilation of the various uses of this theme throughout the trilogy.

    7.9.5 Music for New Media

    Although the movies continue to flourish in the twenty-first century, new technologies bring new media, and, with it, new music. One of the fastest growing examples of new media comes in the form of video games. The music of the first commercially-available video games of the 1970s was rudimentary at best. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and video games feature complex and original musical backdrops which complement incredibly realistic graphics and game play. These games require a cinematic style of music that can adapt to the actions of the player.

    Listen to the example below from the original for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Early video game music is not unlike the music of the Renaissance in that it was limited to polyphony between a small number of voices. The original NES system put significant restraints on composers, as it was only possible to sound three to four notes simultaneously, and a great deal of effort was put into getting as rich a sound as possible within these constraints. Listen below to the two versions of the main Zelda theme (called the “Overworld Theme”). Conceived by ac- claimed video game composer Koji Kondo, it is one of the most famous video game themes of all time. This theme has been featured in almost all of the Legend of Zelda games. Notice how the composer uses imitative polyphony to create the illusion of a full texture. Notice also the piece’s similarity to Ravel’s Bolero, which we heard earlier in this chapter. Kondo originally planned to use his own arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero as the main theme for the game. However, in the end he chose to write instead an original piece with similar characteristics. Notice that both are built on a steady repeated percussive pattern.


    For audio, go to:

    Compososer: Koji Kondo

    Composition: The Legend of Zelda (Overworld Theme)

    Date: 1986

    Genre: Video Game Music

    Performing Forces: orchestra
    Time Performing Force, Melody and Texture

    Synthesized sounds.
    Heroic march implied by rudimentary percussion sounds. Basic chord structure implied through limited polyphony.


    Main Theme.
    Synthesized sounds.
    Heroic march.
    Imitative polyphony creates a sense of full texture.

    The second version of the theme is a testament to the advances made in the technological capabilities of video game music. An updated arrangement of the theme from Nintendo’s 2011 release, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, it features the “Overworld Theme” in the game’s credits sequence. If you didn’t know this music belonged to a video game, you could imagine it as a soundtrack to a blockbuster adventure movie.


    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Koji Kondo

    Composition: The Legend of Zelda (Overworld Theme)

    Date: 1986 (2011 arrangement)

    Genre: Video Game Music

    Performing Forces: orchestra

    Timing Performing Force, Melody and Texture

    Orchestral: Strings with brass hits.
    Heroic march.
    Rising chords create sense of anticipation.


    Main Theme.
    Trumpets take melody followed by strings.

    Heroic march.

    This page titled 7.7: The Late Twentieth Century is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.