Traits of the Postmodern

What was modernism? What was postmodernism? Is “was” the correct term for either, neither, or both? A survey of twentieth-century music inevitably must deal with these questions, particularly when the music of the final third-or-so of that century is discussed. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I think they are questions worth pursuing.

The late Jonathan D. Kramer’s* list of “traits” of postmodern music provides one starting place. For him, postmodern music
  1. is not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension;
  2. is, on some level and in some way, ironic;
  3. does not respect boundaries between sonorities and procedures of the past and of the present;
  4. challenges barriers between “high” and “low” styles;
  5. shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity;
  6. questions the mutual exclusivity of elitist and populist values;
  7. avoids totalizing forms (e.g., does not want entire pieces to be tonal or serial or cast in a prescribed formal mold);
  8. considers music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts;
  9. includes quotations of or references to music of many traditions and cultures;
  10. considers technology not only as a way to preserve and transmit music but also as deeply implicated in the production and essence of music;
  11. embraces contradiction;
  12. distrusts binary oppositions;
  13. includes fragmentations and discontinuities;
  14. encompasses pluralism and eclecticism;
  15. presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities;
  16. locates meaning and even structure in listeners, more than in scores, performances, or composers.

Mr. Kramer offers the following caveat:

Not many pieces exhibit all of these traits, and thus it is futile to label a work as exclusively postmodern. Also, I would find it difficult to locate a work that exhibits none of these traits. I caution the reader, therefore, against using these traits as a checklist to help identify a given composition as postmodern or not: postmodern music is not a neat category with rigid boundaries.

These traits will certainly come up time and again in our exploration of the 101.


* Kramer, Jonathan D. The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism. In Lochhead, Judy & Auner, Joseph (Eds.) Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought (pp. 13-26). New York: Routledge.


  1. You may be interested to learn (assuming you weren't already aware of it, that is) those traits that Kramer says characterize postmodern music are *precisely* those which are used to characterize postmodern architecture (_mutatis mutandis_ in terminology where applicable). The list is in fact so precisely in agreement I almost suspect some, um, borrowing was involved.

    Welcome to the blogosphere, Steve. I look forward to reading more on your new weblog.

    ACD (Sounds & Fury)

  2. Thanks for the welcome, ACD.

    I'm not surprised that these traits are also listed for pomo architecture. I'll have to look at Mr. Kramer's essay again to see if he mentions the overlap.

  3. Anonymous8:42 PM

    Kramer's list is excellent, and not surprisingly I just referenced it in an article I wrote last month.

    What I've haven't been able to figure out is what will follow postmodernism as a musical trend. I speculate that we are headed towards a much different cultural climate over say the next 5 or 10 years, but I have no clue what that will be like.

    Good to see you with your own blog...

    Robert Gable

  4. The best description of postmodern music I know is "It's everything you've heard before, only all mixed up."

  5. Any postmodern composer worth her/his salt would deliberately write music that cannot be shoehorned onto that list.

    Of course, that's a joke. For PoMo is more a condition, a state of mind, an attitude, than a collection of representative artifacts. It is a way of comprehending the world, rather than a technique, or set of techniques, for making art, science, culture, whatever.

    At least, that's as I understand Lyotard.

    If this is so, it is meaningless to identify postmodern music. Rather it is our responses to works that are (or maybe are not) postmodern.

    For example, the musical "The Producers" is filled with irony as it plays with the texts of Broadway musicals. But it is only our response that "privileges" that irony and playfulness over other characteristics, such as the humiliation of Adolf Hitler (a la Chaplin, a consummate modernist) and the perfectly realized conventional characters.

    Years from now, when postmodernism is truly old hat and many of the injokes about Broadway are lost to history, we will all come back to The Producers and see it as, perhaps, a comic political masterpiece on the level of a Beuamarchais play (not on the level of Mozart's music). And the irony, wordplay, multiple levels of homophilia and homophobia will recede as other features become salient.