Music for the Listener
Music for the Listener

Chapter 14

Twenty-first Century Perspectives

Chapter Ancillaries More Info: NPR's Best 21st Century Classical Music
More Info: Women in 21st Century Pop Music
In terms of music, the 21st century is thus far primarily defined by the internet and technological advancements that shape the way that music is made, distributed, and consumed. Listening to music and/or watching a music video is as simple as touching the screen of a mobile device. Music in the twentieth century was conveyed by material objects like jukeboxes, records and record players, cassettes and the Walkman, and compact discs, and now it is mediated and disseminated through online platforms like YouTube and TikTok. The quality of the music we listen to has degraded due to the digital recording and manipulation that is required for streaming, but what is lost in quality is made up for in ease of availability.

The predominance of music streaming has forced the music industry and musicians to search for other sources of revenue. It takes approximately 250 streams for an artist to make one dollar. In this new popular music economy, the majority of an artist’s income is generated from live performances and tours (good news for fans of live music!)

In broad terms, the music industry has not really changed much since the mid-twentieth century. The musicians and people on the business side are still figuring out how to adapt to the ways that the internet and social media have affected them, and are learning to harness the power of these intermediaries to disseminate music to the fans.

Below, a few of the key genres discussed in previous chapters will be investigated for how they function in contemporary contexts.

Classical/Art Music

In recent decades the classical music world has struggled to remain relevant. This is partly because institutions such as symphony orchestras and opera companies produce concerts that feature music by predominantly white, European composers who have been dead for hundreds of years. However, many of the world’s premiere ensembles, opera, and dance companies have begun to embrace a range of works by diverse composers such as Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoni, Unsuk Chin, Kaija Saariaho, and Terence Blanchard. Blanchard is a jazz trumpeter that has composed several pioneering works performed my major opera companies including Champion and Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Blanchard’s work is one example of the blurring of genre that has continued both within and outside of the classical music world.


In the twentieth century jazz followed an interesting trajectory from popular, mainstream music for the masses to art music that is complex and virtuosic. Swing bands played for hundreds of dancers on Saturday nights in the 1930s and 1940s and their music was broadcast to a national audience. In more recent decades, jazz is part of the academy; it is practiced and studied, and it is performed on stage at formal concert halls all over the world. However, in the 21st century jazz has become a part of several other genres and its characteristics can be heard in classical, pop, and hip hop, to name a few. Artists like saxophonists Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin played on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, and pianist Robert Glasper has played with and produced records for Lamar, Ledisi, Lupe Fiasco, and Jill Scott. Artists such as Jason Moran, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon, The Bad Plus, Anat Cohen, Kneebody, Snarky Puppy, and Esperanza Spalding carry on the traditions of jazz while also progressing the genre further.

Popular Music

Popular music in the 21st century has embraced diversity in recent years. The rise in popularity of genres like K-Pop and reggaeton help to prove this, but this can also be seen in the dominance of female artists in pop, rock, folk, country, and hip hop. The massive success of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nikki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Lizzo, Kali Uchis, Karol G, Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Adele, and Camila Cabello would have been hard to imagine in previous decades, especially in historically male-dominated genres like hip hop.

In the 21st century, hip hop remains the dominant popular genre in America and abroad with artists like a few of the women discussed above along with superstars Drake, Eminem, and Jay-Z.

Discussion Questions: