Contemporary music, as a broad whole, can mean one thing and a many of things at once. By definition it means existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time. It, in and of itself, is a musical genre, but within it are multiple elements of different style of music. It encompasses terms such as modernist, postmodern, neo-romantic, and pluralist music. Contemporary music can use everything from tertian harmony to multiple extended harmonies; quartal or secundal, chords built on 4th’s or 2nd’s. It can use synthetic and electronic sounds and have complex rhythms. It’s best to think of contemporary music as this melting pot of genres; music of the modern day.
It’s evident, given the defining characteristics, that music today is much different than music that was made hundreds of years ago. Possibilities are endless today now that musician’s have the ability to manipulate music electronically. Keep in mind that incorporating the use of electronic instruments, like synthesizers, in music is only one aspect making up contemporary music. For example, there are genres like blues, country, electronic/dance, experimental, folk, funk, hiphop, jazz, metal, pop, rock. And within each of these genres there are different contemporary aspects. Sometimes the best way to define something is to take a step back. A general example would be Australian contemporary music, which is music written and recorded by people from Australia, and could be categorized using any of the genres mentioned above. Music in the United States is the same way. Artists like Lindsay Stirling for example, exploded on the scene as a violinist, dancer, performance artist, and composer. She composes and performs everything from classical to pop and rock to electronic dance music. She would still be a contemporary artist, but within that, her music is considered dub step.
Contemporary music is very much based by the music itself, not just the artist. Some artists choose to write within a specific sub-genre and some choose to write music across all the genres. Adele for example, is considered pop, soul, blue-eyed soul, and contemporary R&B. A song by her may be, genre specifically, a pop song, but her music is contemporary music. More specifically the term contemporary classical music, written by composers like John Cage or John Adams, comes to mind. They both have done well in pushing the envelope of music through their brilliant and innovative experimentation with structure and harmony. These composers, and many more composers doing the same, are often composing larger pieces of music. This being said, John Cage did compose a unique piece called “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”, it was in fact that long. They may not write the most popular 3-minute pop song, but they are nonetheless a part of modern contemporary music.
To sum all this up, just like how the major musical time periods, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Impressionist, lasted over hundreds of years; Modern and contemporary music are the product of the evolving last hundred years, of which, we are still in the middle. Contemporary music is eclectic. It combines multiple styles. It’s considered period of change and development in music. It’s modern. It’s the continuation of creation. It, in and of itself is one thing, and it’s also many things. It is this moment, in the world of music, which we as musicians, have been living, experiencing, and composing.