Best Famous Composers of the 20th Century

Many composers of the early 20th century experimented with rhythm and gained inspiration from folk music. They were willing to explore new forms of music using technology.

These experiments had audiences very confused. Composers got support from some listeners, but not others. Out of this came a major change in the way music is composed, performed, and appreciatedю

Musical Style in the 20th Century

The 1900s saw a lot of different types of music being used– composers had more freedom to experiment to create different styles. This means the 20th century is often known as the age of diversity in music.

The technology they use and the extras they have give them an advantage. They don’t use samples, instead they create their own unique sounds by combining instruments with playing around with pitch and dynamics/timing/mood.

Near the end of the 1800’s, romantic music became popular. Romantic music was mostly an extension of romantic-era music, which made it a bit old-fashioned. It featured some traditional instrument groups like string quartets and flute quintets.

Some major music movements of the 20th century are impressionism, modernism, expressionism & post-modernism.


This was a type of music that came about at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. It expresses feelings and moods rather than just focusing on what it sounds like. Impressionism is a relatively recent art movement but there are two leading figures; Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Impressionism started in the late 1800s, but wasn’t officially created until after 1890 by Ernest Fanelli. His works were not performed before 1912 though.


This movement was referred to as a period of change and development in the artistic field. They wanted to create a new musical language that expressed the current era. They proved that this new style was emotionally provocative. All of these compositions have been copied and performed countless times and they had a huge impact on the way people listened to classical music in the early 20th century. They made more of an impact than we are able to appreciate now.


Expressionism is an important movement of 20th century music and its notable characteristics are high dissonance, constant shifts in texture, contrasts in dynamics, distorted harmonies and melodies. Three important figures of expressionism are Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. There are also many other composers associated with this movement.


So this movement came to be as a reaction to Modernism and also as a response to Art in the same time period. 20th-century music was led by prominent figures such as John Cage. He’s said justice is due to both modernism and post-modernism, understanding how the two cannot be reduced to simple schemata. For a lot of his life, Daniel experienced classical music in one way or another. Currently, this movement includes composers who react to the music from the late 20th century.

Powerful Developments in 20th Century Music

Music has made huge progress in the past thousand years. There are six popular music periods in music. They are the Middle Ages (500-1400 AD), the Renaissance period (1400-1600 AD), the Romantic period (1810-1910 AD), the Classical period (1730-1820 AD), the Baroque period (1600-1750 AD) and 20th and 21st centuries.

Some people find classical music to be more interesting and compelling than other types. Classical music is popular for the emphasis on clarity of structure within the compositions. Music and art developed tremendously during this period. Favourite music forms were closely related to the baroque period, and influenced by it. Of particular importance were concert, trio, quartet and symphony genres for which the settings fitted their own style of music or performance.

There have been many types of music created in the 20th century. They include classical, jazz, hip hop, romantic songs, country folk music, atonal music which is a type of avant-garde and experimental type of classical music or composing process where there is no clear tonal center but it’s economical use is discouraged due to its complexity. When it comes to music, these are the new forms and songs that are grabbing peoples attention. For example, Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 1975 and is still being played a lot today.

Performance Practices of 20th Century Music

Music in the 20th century was full of diversity. With composers coming from a range of countries, this music really flourished.

Some well-known composers from America include William Grant Still, John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, and Bartok Bela. If we look to Hungary then the renowned composer is Bela Bartok. It would be unfair to mention French composers without mentioning Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, who will forever be associated with Impressionism. These are some of my favorite.

Stravinsky was born in Russia, but spent a lot of his time in the US and France. He also wrote music, conducted and is an outstanding pianist. He was marked as one of the most influential and important composers of the 20th century.

The 20th century has seen tons of revolutionary developments in music, some of the most notable being advancements in sound recording techniques. One example would be the widespread usage of instruments such as percussion and electric guitars.

Serialism is an important aspect of the 20th century. It produced a revolution in the history of music. This reflected on the troubled times of Western Europe, which was facing not one but two world wars by then.

Top Famous Composers of the 20th Century

By the turn of the 20th century, classical music had a sense of generalised tedium. It seemed that every last thing was possible within sound dating as far back as the Baroque period. Composers crave change, so they’ve been changing a lot of different things lately- traditional ways, to be specific.

Music during these periods also has its distinct sound. This list breaks down the genres to much more than Baroque, Classical and Romantic.

To learn more about the music of this period, check out the profiles of the following 50 famous 20th-century composers. This list of composers born in 20th century includes people from USA, France, Australian and many other countries.

1. Milton Byron Babbitt

He was a mathematician, music theorist and composer who promoted serialist compositions and electronic music. Composer, author and lecturer Charles Babbitt studied Western musical traditions and arts in New York. He’s credited with helping to establish Twentieth Century music as a legitimate academic study. His compositions are noted for their experimentation exploring the innovative uses of non-traditional instruments (like the piano).

2. Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber was an American contemporary composer and songwriter with a European Romantic flair. He started composing at the age of 7 and writing his first opera at 10-years.

Barber was a popular classical composer, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize. His musical compositions include “Adagio for Strings” and “Dover Beach.”

3. Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok was a Hungarian music teacher, composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist. His mother was his first piano teacher. He later studied at the Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. Some of his most famous books include “Kossuth,” “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” “The Wooden Prince” and “Cantata Profana.”

4. Alban Berg

It’s no wonder that Alban Berg learned the atonal style from Arnold Schoenberg, being a student of his. Berg’s early work was heavily influenced by Schoenberg, and his originality became more apparent in his later works. You can especially see this in his operas “Lulu” and “Wozzeck.”

5. Luciano Berio

Italian composer, conductor, and theorist Luciano Berio was a fascinating artist who became a pioneer in electronic music. His works varied from instrumental and vocal compositions to operas, orchestral pieces and many other creative projects.

Some of his better-known compositions are: ‘Epifanie,’ ‘Sinfonia’ and the ‘Sequenza series.’ He wrote “Sequenza III” for his wife, the actress/singer Cathy Berberian.

6. Leonard Bernstein

One of the most prolific librettists and orchestrators in his generation, Leonard Bernstein was a Harvard graduate and Curtis Institute student. Throughout his illustrious career he wrote both popular music and classical works of great renown.

Leonard Bernstein composed hundreds of musical works and became the musical director of New York Philharmonic. His most famous work is the Broadway musical “West Side Story.”

7. Ernest Bloch

Ernest Bloch was an American composer and lecturer in the early 20th century. He served as music director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and San Francisco Conservatory, as well as teaching at Geneva Conservatory.

8. Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was a conductor, pianist and major 20th century English composer. He was instrumental in setting up the Aldeburgh Festival in England. The Aldeburgh Festival is focused on classical music and was first held at the auditorium of the Jubilee Hall which is its original venue.

Eventually, the venue was shifted to a location that previously was a malt house. Through the hard work of Britten, it underwent renovation and turned into the concert hall. In a career stretching across nearly 40 years, he wrote the American opera “Peter Grimes,” “Death in Venice” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

9. Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni was a composer and concert pianist from Italian and German heritage. Besides his operas and piano pieces, Busoni also edited the works of other composers, including Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. His last opera “Doktor Faust” was left unfinished but was completed by one of his students after his death.

10. John Cage

An American composer, John Cage became a leading figure in the avant-garde movement after the World Wars. His new ideas about using instruments helped inspire a whole way of thinking about making and appreciating music.

The jury is still out on whether he ought to be seen as a genius or not, but many people do view him that way. Some of his most famous pieces are, for example, the four minute and thirty three second 4’33” where the performer is expected to remain silent.

11. Teresa Carreño

Teresa Carreño was a celebrated pianist who inspired generations of young pianists and composers when she was alive. Besides being a pianist, she also was a composer and conductor. The singer made her debut in 1876 as an opera singer in New York.

12. Elliott Carter

Elliot Cook Carter, Jr. is a well-known American composer who has won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935 he became the music director of Ballet Caravan staged by Lincoln Kirstein. He taught at schools such as the Juilliard School, Peabody Conservatory, and Yale University. He is a really creative and out-of-the-box thinker. Engineers at his company are also very innovative and driven.

13. Carlos Chavez

Carlos Antonio de Padua Chavez y Rami­rez was a teacher, lecturer, author, composer and music director from Mexico. John is primarily known for using folk songs, indigenous themes and instruments in his music.

14. Rebecca Clarke

Before she died in 1999, Rebecca Clarke was a composer and violist of the early 20th century. She creates chamber music, choral work, songs and solo pieces. She entered one of her better known works, the “Viola sonata,” into a music festival. Bloch’s suite tied for first place with the said composition.

15. Aaron Copland

Composer and teacher Aaron Copland brought American music to the forefront with his influential pieces. Copland wrote the ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” which were both based on American folk stories. He also wrote film scores for various movies based on John Steinbeck’s books, like “Of Mice and Men” and “The Red Pony.”

16. Manuel de Falla

Manuel María de los Dolores Falla y Matheu was a leading composer in Spain of the 20th century. One of his first gigs was as a pianist for a theatrical touring company. He also played in various groups before joining the Philharmonic. He was a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de Granada, and became a member of the Hispanic Society of America.

17. Frederick Delius

Frederick Delius was an English composer who composed a lot of orchestral and choral music, spreading interest in music in England from the 1800’s to the 1930’s. Though he was born in Yorkshire, he spent most of his life in France. Some of his better understood works are “Brigg Fair,” “Sea Drift,” “Appalachia” and “A Village Romeo and Juliet”.

There’s a film titled “Song of the Summer” that was based on Eric Fenby’s memoir “Delius As I Knew Him.” Fenby was Delius’ assistant. Said film was directed by Ken Russell and aired in 1968.

18. Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was one of the most influential jazz artists of his era. He was also a pianist, composer and bandleader, who won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1999. He made a name for himself with his jazz band performances at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1930s. He was active from 1914-1974.

19. George Gershwin

George Gershwin was a pretty famous composer and songwriter. Not only did he write music for Broadway, but he also wrote some of the most memorable songs in modern history like “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, “I Got Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

20. Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Halliday was a celebrated American jazz trumpeter. He earned the nickname Dizzy due to his energetic antics onstage and figure skating during performances as well as his dizzying fast-pace with which he played melodies.

He was a major figure in the bebop movement and later the Afro-Cuban music scene. Dizzy Gillespie was also a bandleader, composer and vocalist, particularly with scat singing.

21. Percy Grainger

Percy was an Australian composer, conductor, pianist and really into collecting folk music. He moved to the U.S.A (then known as the U.S. of A) in 1914 and eventually became a citizen there, yee haw! Moore was influenced by English folk music and composed many tunes, including “Country Gardens,” “Molly on the Shore” and “Handel in the Strand.”

22. Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst is a very well-known composer and influential music educator, the most famous of his works being “The Planets” suite and “The Hymn Of Jesus”. His most famous work is “The Planets.” It’s an orchestral suite consisting of seven movements, each named after a different planet and the character associated with it in Roman mythology. The first few lyrics are “Mars, the Bringer of War” and last line is “Neptune, the Mystic”.

23. Charles Ives

Charles Ives was a composer whose work can be placed under the umbrella of “modernism”. He’s credited as being the first major US-born composer to reach international fame. His music often had a distinct American theme and he wrote piano pieces and orchestral music. Ives was more than just a composer. He ran an insurance agency and had a side business in real estate.

24. Zoltan Kodaly

Zoltan Kodaly was born in Hungary, and learned how to play violin, piano and cello without formal schooling. He wrote music and got friends with Bartók.

He got his Ph.D and was praised for his works, especially the music meant for kids. He wrote a lot of music, put on concerts with young musicians, wrote many articles and did lectures.

25. Gyorgy Ligeti

One of the most well-respected Hungarian composers of the post-war era, Gyorgy Ligeti created and developed “micropolyphonic” music styles. One of his best pieces where he used this technique is in “Atmosphères”. This piece has been featured in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick.

26. Witold Lutoslawski

A significant Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski is first and foremost known for his orchestral pieces. After he was accepted to the Warsaw Conservatory, he studied composition and music theory. Some of his famous works are “The Symphonic Variations,” “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” and “Funeral Music.” He dedicated that one to Hungarian composer Béla Bartó.

27. Henry Mancini

Henry Macini was an American composer, arrangers and conductor. He is noted for composing the soundtracks to many famous films and television series, winning him multiple awards in the process. He wrote the score for over 80 feature-length films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The ASCAP Henry Mancini Award is given out every year to help recognize and celebrate outstanding achievements in both film and television music.

28. Gian Carlo Menotti

Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian composer and librettist that founded Spoleto’s Festival of Two Worlds. That festival honors music from all over the world.

At age 11, Menotti already wrote two operas, namely “The Death of Pierrot” and “The Little Mermaid.” His “The Last Savage” was the first opera by a non-Frenchman commissioned by the Paris Opera.

29. Olivier Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen was a composer, educator and organist from France whose works influenced musicians like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. His major compositions include “Quatuor Pour La Fin du Temps,” “Saint Francois d’ Assise” and “Turangalîla-Symphonie”.

30. Darius Milhaud

Darius Milhaud was a prolific French composer and violinist who furthered polgorithms. He was part of Les Six, a group of French music composers whose influence came from musician Erik Satie in the 1920s and early 1930s.

31. Carl Nielsen

Denmark’s most famous composer and violinist, Carl Nielsen was mostly famous for his symphonies which include “Symphony No. 2” (The Four Temperaments), “Symphony No. 3” (Sinfonia Espansiva) and “Symphony No. 4” (The Inextinguishable).

32. Carl Orff

Carl Orff was a German composer who developed a way of teaching children about music. This included instructions on how to create different sounds with their mouths and hands. The Orff Approach is still used in a lot of schools today.

33. Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc was one of the key French composers after World War 1 and a member of Les Six. He wrote a bunch of different types of music, including concertos, sacred music and even some pieces for the piano. He was known for composing what are still some of the most popular compositions all these years later, like his “Mass in G Major” and “Les Biches”, which was commissioned by the famous Diaghilev.

34. Sergey Prokofiev

One of Sergey Prokofiev’s (a Russian composer) best-known works is “Peter and the Wolf”, which he wrote in 1936 as a children’s theatre piece for Moscow. Prokofiev wrote both the story and music for this children’s book. It has a musical introduction to how instruments are played in an orchestra, and each character is represented by one instrument.

35. Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel was a French composer who is known for his excellent craftsmanship when it comes to music. He left home early, never married and preferred to be by himself. He’s best known for his ballets “Bolero,” “Daphnis and Chloe” as well as the opera “Pavane for a Dead Princess”.

36. Silvestre Revueltas

Revueltas was a Mexican musician, teacher and conductor. He is primarily known for boosting Mexican music by collaborating with Carlos Chavez. He helped lead the Mexico Symphony Orchestra and taught at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City.

37. Richard Rodgers

His collaborations with a diverse group of talented lyricists like Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II are still favorites among people. Musicians like Richard Rodgers were popular during the 1930s, and wrote many well known songs. Some of his most famous are ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ written in 1932 from the film ‘Love Me Tonight’, ‘My Funny Valentine’ written in 1937 and ‘Where or When’ performed by Ray Heatherton in 1937.

38. Erik Satie

French pianist and composer of the 20th-century, Erik Satie was particularly known for his piano music. He really brought something new to classical music with his experimental approach and use of multiple meters. Anything he played was a delight to hear! His music, like the calming “Gymnopedie No. 1,” is still really popular nowadays. Satie is said to have become a recluse later in his life.

39. Aleksandr Scriabin

Scriabin, who is a pianist and composer from Russia, primarily composed his symphonies and piano music that were influenced by mysticism and lofty philosophical concepts. He’s written some of the most popular works including the “Piano Concerto,” “Symphony No. 1,” “Symphony No. 3,” and more!

40. Dmitry Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich was a Russian composer with a great track record and experience in symphonies, string quartets and so on. He was a Russian composer who was out of luck during Stalin’s regime. His opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” got some acceptance for a bit, but ended up being shunned because Stalin didn’t like it.

41. Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen was an influential and innovative German composer who brought new ideas to the world. He was one of the first to create music from sonic waves. Stockhausen experimented with tape recorders, electronic instruments and more.

42. Igor Stravinsky

I bet you don’t know who Stravinsky was! He was a Russian composer who introduced the idea of modernism in music. His father, who was one of Russia’s top basses, was a big influence on Stravinsky.

Igor Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev, the producer of the Ballet Rouse. Some of his famous works are “The Firebird,” “The Rite of Spring” and “Oedipus Rex.”

43. Germaine Tailleferre

Germaine Tailleferre was one of the most prominent French composers of the 20th century and was the only female member of Les Six. Her father really didn’t support her music dreams, so to distance herself from him, she changed her last name. She studied in Paris, at the Conservatoire.

44. Michael Tippett

Conductor and music director Michael Tippett also composed string quartets, symphonies, and operas – The Midsummer Marriage was created in 1952. Tippett was knighted in 1966.

45. Edgard Varèse

Edgard Varèse was a composer who experimented with music and technology, you know? He wrote “Ionisation” which is an orchestral work with solely percussion instruments. Varese also experimented with tape music and electronic instruments.

46. Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer, music educator, conductor and advocate for Brazilian music. He was one of the most prolific composers in all Brazilian history with over 400 works for orchestra. He wrote a lot of different types of music.

Villa-Lobos wrote more than 2000 pieces including “Bachianas Brasilieras” which was inspired by Bach, and the ‘Concerto for Guitar’. His guitar compositions are still popular to this day.

47. William Walton

William Walton was an English composer who wrote orchestral music, film scores, vocal music, opera and other stage works. Walton achieved success as a writer and has received accolades for titles like “Façade,” “Belshazzar’s Feast” and the coronation march, “Crown Imperial.” It’s worth noting that he was knighted in 1951.

48. Anton Webern

Anton Weber was Austrian composer and conductor. He played an important role in the development of 12-tone music in Vienna. Some of his most well known works are “Passacaglia, op. 1″ and ” Im Sommerwind”. His most famous work is the song Entfleht auf leichten Kähnen.

49. Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill was a German composer who co-wrote with Bertolt Brecht. He wrote operas, cantatas, music for plays, concert music, film and radio scores. He wrote a few operas, including “Mahagonny,” “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” and “The Threepenny Opera.” The song “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” from “Die Dreigroschenoper” became a huge hit and is still popular today.

50. Ralph Vaughan Williams

A British composer, he was very passionate about nationalism in English music. He wrote songs, concerts, maybe a symphony and other smaller musical compositions. Wootton collected English folk songs and was influenced by them in his music.


The 20th century was an interesting time for everything and anything–including music. It’s when musicians got to explore different types of genres. People were able to enjoy music in their own language and style, too!

During the 20th century, the world had many different popular music composers. Every composer has their own style of composing which made listening to them unique and unheard before.

So that wraps up this blog post about 20th century contemporary composers.

FAQ for Famous Composers of the 20th Century

What are the most famous composers of the 20th century?

The 20th century was a time of many changes in the music industry. The composers of that era are diverse, and their styles reflect the changing times.

  • Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
  • George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)
  • Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

What are the most famous operas composed by composers 20th century?

This is a list of some of the most famous operas composed by composers in the 20th century.

  • “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
  • “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • “Carmen” by Georges Bizet
  • “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini
  • The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill,
  • Aida by Giuseppe Verdi,

How does a composer’s popularity vary depending on the time period?

In the past, composers were often well-known in their own time and would gradually fade into obscurity. However, in the modern day and age, composers are more likely to be popular during their lifetime and remain popular for generations afterwards.

How become a successful composer?

It is difficult to become a successful composer. A composer needs to have the right skills and talent. Some composers may need to study music theory and composition before they can start composing their own music.

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