Aesthetics of 20th-Century Music

Aesthetics of 20th-Century Music

Professor: Huck Hodge, 

TA: Jay Rauch |



This is a course on aesthetics. Aesthetics asks questions about value, e.g.:

“is this a good or bad piece of music/composer/musical style or practice”;

“what values are you basing this assessment on”;

“are those values objective/subjective, timeless/culturally determined, etc.?”

In short, we will ask, "why do the composers we look at approach music in the ways they do?"



This course has three main goals:

  1. to explore the increasing plurality of artistic values and the techniques used to realize them in 20th-century Western “classical” music;
  2. to consider why things get so complicated/knotty, why it seems that “anything goes” at a certain point in 20th-century music;
  3. to examine the ways that music sheds light on the (scientific, social, political, ethical, religious)  beliefs we might hold about the world more generally.


To this end, we will proceed from the following axiom:

Beliefs about how the world is (or should be) organized influence:

1) the choices that composers make about the sort of music they want to create,

2) the ways we evaluate the quality of that music,

3) the opinions we have about what counts as music at all, and

4) whose voice deserves to be heard.



Assigned readings are listed for each class session. Several readings will be drawn from these sources:


Kostka, Stefan (2012). Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music.

                                    4th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Taruskin, Richard (2010). Oxford History of Western Music (OHWM), Vol. IV-V          

                                       Oxford: Oxford University Press


Score Packet (part I)



  1. Assignments [60%] – Students will regularly be assigned specific exercises and analysis activities in preparation for the lectures. Many of these assignments will include a written component. The grading rubric for written assignments is included here: 303 writing rubric.pdf
  2. Quizzes [10%] – Periodic quizzes will be given to evaluate comprehension and acquisition of specific skills and concepts. You will also be required to identify the repertoire we study by listening to excerpts.
  3. Participation [5%] – Students will regularly be called on in class to respond to questions about the material under discussion. There will also be various activities (e.g., discussion forums, in-class performances) that will require student involvement. In general, I will first wait for volunteers to respond to questions/prompts. Failing this, I will use a random list generator to call on students. Provided you actually participate when prompted, you will receive full credit by default.
  4. Final Project [25%] – The final project is in 2 parts: A larger-scale group composition project and a 3-page theoretical statement (750 - 1000 words). Students may work in groups of 2-4 and will be involved in the composition and performance of their pieces. The pieces must make use of some of the different techniques covered in the class. The theoretical statement should describe the ways in which your composition responds to the various aesthetic positions covered in class and demonstrate the techniques used to convey this response.


All students are expected to do their own original work. Any plagiarism will result in a grade of “F” for the course.

The chart for converting percentages to the 4.0 grade-point scale can be found here.



I would very much appreciate it if you would "unmute" your cameras on Zoom. This helps me feel more like I'm talking to other humans and less like I'm talking to some monolithic abyss. It will also help me, via your facial expressions, to gauge which things from the lecture require more explanation, which things are painfully obvious, etc. 



This schedule of classes, readings, and assignments is subject to revision during the quarter.

Unless otherwise noted, readings should be completed before the class session in which they appear on the syllabus. Homework is due before the beginning of the indicated class session. 


1900 – 1945

9/30    Introduction, The limits of analysis

Read: Schoenberg, Brahms the Progressive, part XV (1947) (finish by 10/2)

Jonathan Cross, ed., Music Analysis, 22/i-ii (2003), Editorial.pdf (finish by 10/2)

Repertoire: Johannes Brahms, O Tod || Arnold Schoenberg, No. 8 Night (Nacht) from Pierrot Lunaire

Class resources: Brahms, O Tod (score) / Zoom video


10/2 (precept.) The limits of analysis (discussion)


10/5    Early atonality and expressionism

Read: Kostka, Nonserial Atonality (ch. 9: pp. 178–86 (required), 175-77 (optional))Video Lesson: Pitch Class


Repertoire: Schoenberg, No. 8 Night (Nacht) from Pierrot Lunaire

HW: The limits of analysis response

Resources on Expressionist Art and Architecture:

Read: Taruskin, OHWM (Vol. IV, Ch 6 – “Motivicization” in Practice)

Repertoire: Bach/Webern, Ricercare from A Musical Offering || Anton Webern, Op. 10 (Mvmt. I, III, IV)

HW (due 10/9): Pitch class sets (Kostka Ch. 9)

Class resources: 10/4 class notes.pdf 


10/12  Serialism: 12-tone techniques

Read: Kostka, Classical Serialism (ch. 10, excerpt)

Repertoire: Webern, Symphonie Op. 21 (Mvmt. I)

HW: Kostka Ch 10 part 1— Row Forms

Class resources:  Webern Op 21 handout.pdf

Webern, op. 21 — opening canons

Class session (zoom video)


10/14  Serialism: 12-tone techniques

Read: Taruskin, OHWM (Vol. IV, Ch 12 – Epitome)

Repertoire: Webern, Symphonie Op. 21 (Mvmt. I)

HW: 12-tone matrix

Class resources: Webern Op 21 handout.pdf

Class session (zoom video)


10/19  The end of time

Read: Messiaen, excerpts from Technique de mon langage musical.pdf

Repertoire: Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, mvmt I

HW: Messiaen — Technique de mon langage musical | Reading and Study Questions

Class resources: Powerpoint: Messiaen.pptx Notes on Metaphysics in Messiaen.pdf 

Class session (video)


AFTER 1945

10/21  Total serialism

Read: Taruskin, OHWM (Vol. V, Ch 1): Fixations || "Total Serialism" || Solace in Ritual

Repertoire: Messiaen, Mode de valuers et d’intensités || Pierre Boulez, Structures, Bk. 2, #1 || Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kreuzspiel

Class resources: Messiaen Mode de valuers / Boulez Structures Handout.pdf 

HW (due 11/2): Total Serial Composition  

Class session (video)


10/26   Total serialism

Read: New Developments in Serialism (#153)

Adorno, excerpt from The Aging of New Music || Boulez, Schoenberg is Dead (finish by 10/25)

Repertoire: Stockhausen, Kreuzspiel

Class resources: Kreuzspiel.pptx || Kreuzspiel graphs.pdf

HW (due 11/2): Total Serial Composition

Class session (video)


10/28  Post-war aesthetics and a critique of serialism

Read: New Developments in Serialism (#153)

Adorno, excerpt from The Aging of New Music  ||  Boulez, Schoenberg is Dead

Watch: Jonathan Meades, BBC Documentary on Brutalist Architechture

HW: Reading/Viewing assignment (Adorno, Boulez and Brutalist Architecture)

Class resources: Powerpoint: Adorno / Serialism || notes on Dialectic of Enlightenment.pdf


11/2  Dada and the Absurd, Noise and Silence

Read: Kostka - Chapter 14.pdf

Cage, Experimental Music

Begin Reading (finish by 11/9): George Lewis, excerpts from Improvised Music After 1950: Eurological and Afrological Perspectives || Taruskin, No Ear for Music: the Scary Purity of John Cage

Repertoire: John Cage, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (#5) || 4' 33" || Music of Changes

Class resources: Powerpoint: Adorno / Dada / Cage

HW:Total Serial Composition


11/4    Indeterminate music

Read: Kostka - Chapter 14.pdf

Cage, Experimental Music

Lewis, excerpt from Improvised Music After 1950: Eurological and Afrological Perspectives (finish by 11/9)

Taruskin, No Ear for Music: the Scary Purity of John Cage (finish by 11/9)

Repertoire: Boulez, Luciano Berio, Morton Feldman, Stockhausen 

Class resources: Powerpoint: Indeterminacy.pptx 

Documentary: From Zero


11/9    Chance and improvisation, a critique of Cage

Read: Lewis, excerpt from Improvised Music After 1950: Eurological and Afrological Perspectives (finish by 11/9)

Taruskin, No Ear for Music: the Scary Purity of John Cage (finish by 11/9)

HW: Aleatoric Composition 


11/16  Process music and minimalism I

Read: Steve Reich, Music as a Gradual Process,

Taruskin, OHWM (Vol. V, Ch 8): "Classical Minimalism"

Mother Jones: How Steve Reich Made Music Out of White Complicity

Wall Street Journal: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cultural Borrowing Is Great; The Problem Is Disrespect | (pdf file)

Repertoire: Steve Reich, Pendulum Music, Come Out

Pendulum Music

Class resources: Powerpoint: Minimalism.pptx

HW: Lewis or Taruskin Article — response


11/18  Process music and minimalism II

Julius Eastman (contains potentially troubling language) 

Read: Lewis, "Foreword". Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, edited by René Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach (pp. vi-xiv only)


11/23  Timbre and Texture

Read: Taruskin, OHWM (Vol. V, Ch 4): Reciprocity || Renaissance or Co-optation?

Repertoire: Iannis Xenakis, Metastaseis || Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Class resources: Powerpoint: Xenakis.pptx 

HW: Reich response


11/25  Xenakis and Nancarrow / Process + Texture

Read: Kyle Gann, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, The music: general considerations

Repertoire: Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for player piano (#21 & #36)

(the Studies are not in numerical order on this recording)

HW: Process piece composition


11/30  Spectralism

Read: Tristan Murail, Spectra and Sprites 

Repertoire: Gerard Grisey, Les espaces acoustique: Partiels || Tristan Murail, Désintégrations

Grisey, Partiels (1st section).pdf


12/2  Spectralism

Begin Reading: Cobussen, Music and Spirituality: 13 Meditations around George Crumb's Black Angels

Cobussen endnotes.pdf (finish by 12/10)

Repertoire: Jonathan Harvey, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco || Huck Hodge, Time is the substance I am made of (in memoriam Jonathan Harvey)

Time is the substance I am made of (score)

Class resources: Bell spectrum / Bell spectrum (pitch) || Formant region - aa / Formants (Spectrogram) || Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (score) || Perotín Alleluia Nativitas (score)


12/7    Postmodernism

Read: Cobussen, Music and Spirituality: 13 Meditations around George Crumb's Black Angels

Cobussen endnotes.pdf (finish by 12/10)

Repertoire: George Crumb, Black Angels

Class resources: Modernity/Postmodernity (handout)


12/9    Postmodernism

Read: Cobussen, Music and Spirituality: 13 Meditations around George Crumb's Black Angels

Cobussen endnotes.pdf

Repertoire: Crumb, Black Angels

HW: Cobussen Response (Black Angels - G. Crumb)


Course Summary:

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