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Postmodernism in Music….Bah Humbug!

Composition - Postmodernism - iAM Education - International Academy of Music Education

For a while now in the iAM office we have been thinking about blogging on the more controversial aspects of music, especially those worthy of some debate! Therefore, in the spirit of one of our past, much respected, colleague’s blog series, we have decided to start the lighthearted iAM Provocative blog series.

Co-incidentally, we have recently been approached by a blogger wanting to rant write about such matters. He is a mysterious fellow with an equally curious nom de plume. All we know about him is that he describes himself as a ‘wizened old academic with a penchant for a good book and good claret’! With a lack of mugshot to include, a quick straw poll around the office has produced a guess at an artist’s impression. Without further ado, may we introduce Prof. Punktarius!

WizendProfessor Punktarius

(Best guess at a likeness!)


Postmodernism in Music….Bah Humbug!

By Punktarious


Postmodernism…what is it? I know what it isn’t, and that is good honest brain power and originality! That is just for starters. In music, instead of reading ‘postmodernism’ read ‘copycat plagiarism’ instead, for that is about what it is in all practical sense. There is little originality in it! Just take bits of everyone else, stick it all together and call it postmodernist. Ughhhhhh!

“Postmodernism describes a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism. While encompassing a broad range of ideas, postmodernism is typically defined by an attitude of scepticism, irony or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including notions of human nature, social progress, objective reality and morality, absolute truth and reason. Instead, it asserts that claims to knowledge and truth are products of unique social, historical or political discourses and interpretations, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self –referentiality.

The term postmodernism has been applied both to the era following modernity, and to a host of movements within that era (mainly in art, music, and literature) that reacted against tendencies in modernism……..”  1

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what does it mean in music? Well, I will tell you what it means in music: diddly squat of anything new except, of course, anything goes and everything goes. Even this blog is postmodern in its rhetorical irreverence towards postmodernism!

Even Grove struggles in its subject introduction to pin it down easily, which pretty much sums it all up really:

“A term, American in origin, widely used from the late 1970s onwards, with a broad range of meanings. Some come from multiple associations with ‘modern’ and ‘modernist’, others from disagreement over what the prefix ‘post’ implies about the ‘modern’ – contestation or extension, difference or dependence – and whether postmodernism is a regressive or progressive force.”  2



A typically post-modernist, unoriginal, use of someone else’s ideas

Why do I get annoyed? Well, I get thoroughly annoyed by students in particular who purloin great chunks of other composers’ music, alter a couple of notes, copyright it under their own name and pass it off as their own. That is PLAGIARISM not art! Stop it and try and cultivate some originality instead. Do you think Beethoven became great by copying someone else’s music and passing it off as his own? Well? Of course not. It is such a shame that some students think they can do this under the protective banner of ‘postmodernism’ and get away with it. Why not be a pioneer instead?

Postmodernism may be pluralistic, but in music pluralism appears to have taken on the guise of a thief in the night. I actually had an undergraduate student once who copied a whole piece out for Saxophone Quartet and claimed it was his because the composer was a completely unknown Belgian. Well, even unknown Belgians have their fans and followers and when faced with the score of the original he confessed to stealing the work. Just as well that was enough to persuade him as I was going to swiftly move on to waterboarding, nail pulling, thumb screws and Iron Maiden to extract a confession. I go slightly too far, I didn’t really consider the nail pulling, but the others would have been most effective anyway. Apparently the little darling thought I wouldn’t notice. Well I did, and he got his just deserts for it. Ha ha, how postmodern is that then? He now cleans toilets for a living. Now that is an adequate description of post-modernism in music nowadays.

One of the worst examples of musical postmodernism I have ever come across is the following (you may wish to have a sick bag handy or refrain from operating heavy machinery whilst listening):


What the hell is all this about? “Is music dead?” Oh dear…

What an insult to all the greats mentioned. They would chew up these postmodernists and spit them out, although, that really would be great postmodernism thinking about it! What an insult to any real composer who tries to be, or dares to be, original and even writes on manuscript paper (*gasp*). Where is the original musicality in this?

It isn’t music or am I:

  • 1) missing the point, or perhaps even
  • 2) being more postmodern than the composer?

There isn’t any musicality, there isn’t even any music, so how can it be classed as music? There is barely any relevant sound at all. Now Cage’s 4’33” is much more musical because at least you make the connections in your head between sound and music (you know, via your ears which is the tried and tested method we listen to music). If people call themselves composers then you would have expected they must have learnt from someone, somewhere, so, if these dead composers are all superfluous and of no importance, then that makes whatever he says creatively in the above video of no importance either. If one does not learn from the experience of dead masters, or even your current teachers, then what you will end up writing will likely not be music of any kind that has any iota of substance or plausibility. Music is music. Talking is talking. Educate yourself then start a musical revolution.

It is such a shame as Postmodernism had such a brilliant start in life by being born from the world of modernism, and yet it seems that it has grown into the village idiot. Every piece of postmodern music I ever hear is either so boring I would rather pluck my eyelashes out one at a time, or is just a pale copy of someone else’s music, so much so that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, I walked out of a concert a number of years ago at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the Cambridge New Music Players were performing Thomas Adès’s Concerto-something-or-other, well, at least I think it was that piece as I didn’t hang round long enough to find out properly. What a mess that was!

Where has the originality and skill gone in music composition? Down the toilet that’s where! Even that debacle of pastiche by Adès, “Powder Her Face”, is nothing but a cop out by pastiche borrowings from every cabaret composer you can name and a hand full of romantic opera composers to boot. Come on, if you are going to write an opera at least attempt to write an opera, don’t come out with all that pseudo philosophical claptrap trying to explain just how bad it really all is by copying clichés and passing them off as wonderful new ideas and concepts. They are not. That is just ridiculous. I can see and hear for myself just how bad it is. As I say, more than a slight case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.



Perhaps a little prayer may be appropriate for us wizened old composers:

Please, oh please, dear Lord
Save my brain from exploding,
From having to suffer this Postmodernism.
Save my temples from popping,
through the frustration of it all.
Save my soul from idiots,
who think they know it all, and yet don’t.
Save my eyes from being seared by
blinding stupidity and the disbelief at what I see.
Please, oh please, dear Lord…
…don’t make me listen to Postmodernist music anymore.


I’ll leave you, dear reader, with yet another baffling example of postmodernism. At the start of the video, Tom Service describes it as ‘an existential battle between life and death…’, and I fully concur, it really is indeed a battle…



1 Dear old Wikipedia!

2 Jann Pasler. “Postmodernism.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <>

One thought on “Postmodernism in Music….Bah Humbug!

  1. […] on from our colleague Prof. Punktarious’ last blog in the iAM Provocative series, he’s back, after the summer break…and with his soapbox […]

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