Making Music Abstract

How did composers of the early-twentieth century make their music more abstract? By using visual art, the dreams of Freud, and musical experimentation, this video explores some of the ways that composers created more abstract, modern, and ultimately, more expressive music.


When someone says that a piece of music sounds abstract, often what they mean is that the music sounds modern, strange, or unfamiliar. But actually, music without words is already abstract: we can't say for sure what it's about, even if the sounds are familiar, like in a melody by Mozart or Bach. So if one says that a piece of music is "abstract," what we might mean is that the melody leaves behind certain traditional features, like a home key, or predictable rhythms and meter, and uses more non-traditional techniques, like atonal melody, unpredictable rhythms, and exaggerated features such as range, articulation, and timbre.

In the early-20th century, composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg were interested in these new techniques, in part because they felt they could better express new emotions and ideas about the human experience that people were thinking about at the time. The psychology of Freud is one example, but other new ideas, like Einstein's theories about the universe—not to mention the effects of industrialization and the violence of World War I—were radically changing the ways people thought of themselves and the world. As a result, artists and composers everywhere were creating new techniques to more vividly express their innermost thoughts and emotions about the ever-changing world.

But I should also say that these composers also considered themselves to be part of a long tradition of classical composers stretching back to Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, etc., and although they wanted to push the boundaries of music, they didn't want to abandon everything. They still wanted to use melody, rhythm, classical instruments, expressive gestures, and more—but just in their own way. To paraphrase a quote by the composer Charles Wuorinen speaking about himself, these composers felt they were evolutionary, not revolutionary.

To explore this further, this musical experiment will draw from both worlds—the traditional and the modern—by transforming a familiar melody into something that is more exaggerated and 'abstract,' but at the same time preserves certain features, such as gesture and contour. One thing I love about this experiment is that it can reveal new aspects of the original melody—details about gestures or figures that you didn't notice before—while at the same time revealing how modern composers still create music that references traditional expression from the past. Give it a try. You might be surprised by what you create, and you might start hearing new things in the music by composers from this time.


Your instrument or voice. A favorite melody. Staff paper or notation software (optional).


1) Pick a favorite melody, and play it. In the video I used a melody by a young Anton Webern, but for this example I'll use a melody that everyone knowsThe Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns:

The Swan , opening

The Swan, opening

2) Choose 2-3 of your favorite, most expressive moments in the melody. Probably it's just a few notes that create a memorable gesture in the melody:

3) Experiment with changing the range, or octave, of certain pitches. Composers from the early-20th century loved to use large intervals, partly because it made the gestures of the music more exaggerated and extreme in expression. Here's an example of how that might work in The Swan:

The Swan , gestures with stretched-out intervals (range)

The Swan, gestures with stretched-out intervals (range)

4) Experiment with changing the dynamics, timbre, and articulation. While these are all separate categories by themselves, they often go together. For example, when playing a gesture sul ponticello (on the bridge), I might play also decide to play it with an accent and forte. Again, experiment with different combinations to find which ones you like best:

Experiment with different dynamics, articulation, and timbre.

Experiment with different dynamics, articulation, and timbre.

5) Change pitches. Here you're going to experiment with changing some of the pitches so that the melody leaves the familiar world of it's home key and moves towards something more modern sounding. For example, by changing the two F#'s to A-flat and F-natural, the melody leaves the familiar world of G major and has a much different quality:

Experiment with changing notes to leave the traditional home key of G-major

Experiment with changing notes to leave the traditional home key of G-major

6) Try many combinations! This activity is all about creative experimentation, and there are many possibilities. There are lots of things one could try, and of course I didn't even mention changing the rhythm, which is a big variable that has a tremendous impact on the character of a melody. Have fun with this, and if you create something you really like, feel free to share it with me, or down below in the comments.