Cropped image of the painting the orchestra by Degas

"Where words fail, music speaks." - Hans Christian Andersen

At a Glance

  • Live online course
  • 2 hours a week
  • Thursdays 18:30 - 20:30
  • 10 weeks: April to June
  • Tutor: Dr Bruno Bower
  • Fees from £120 to £205
  • Imperial College attendance certificate (T&Cs apply)
  • Early morning class also available
  • Book from 1 March 2021
Booking link

The twentieth century offers some of most fascinating and wide-ranging classical music, taking in the perky Neoclassical styles of Paris, the hazy minimalist sounds of New York, the forbidding complexity of the Darmstadt School, and everything in between. While a lot of this music is immediately likeable, some of it may sound unappealing or even nonsensical at first hearing. Either way, understanding it often requires some delving into the deep histories and ideas behind it.

This course offers a comprehensive guide to twentieth-century classical music for the complete beginner, covering many of the major themes of the century in (very) broadly chronological order. You will get to hear some of the iconic, must-hear pieces, but we will also explore some of the less well-known voices as well, making a truly diverse experience. In the process you will discover how all of this music interacts with its historical context and cultural ideas which shaped it, all of which gives the sound its meaning.

The course is suitable for people with or without previous knowledge of classical music, though it makes a particularly good next step for those who have already taken the Discovering Classical Music course. All classes will be supported by a PowerPoint presentation and plenty of audio and video examples of the music, and there will opportunities for discussion around the material too, with all opinions welcome.

The aim of the course is to give you confidence to go and hear this music live, once relevant events around London and at Imperial are up and running again these will be highlighted as well.

This course is also offered as a morning class (subject to sufficient enrolment).

Online Access to Course

This is a taught live online course which means you will be taught alongside other students on the course by a tutor at a specific time on a specific day of the week. To take part in the course you will need a suitably equipped and internet-enabled device. Please find full details and instructions below under 'Course Delivery'.

Attendance Certificate

Those who attend at least 80% of the course sessions will receive an attendance certificate from Imperial College London upon completion of the course.

Course Information

Course Programme

Course Structure

Session 1. Breaking with the Past: Varieties of Modernism

This class will present the central ideas that will run through much of the rest of the course: the idea that, whatever a composer does, it must be a break with what has gone before, and introducing the idea of ‘atonality’ as a marker of musical progress. We will discuss the roots of this idea in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before showing how it was expressed in the twentieth century, drawing on German Expressionism from the 1900s and 1910s as a particular example.

Session 2. High/Low Divides

In contrast with the narrative of ‘atonality’ from the first class, the second class discusses the way in which composers drew on popular styles to inform their music as part of a different idea of ‘progress’. The use of jazz in France and the US in the 1910s and 1920s is an important example, though we will also discuss the various folk-song movements across Europe as well, as well as making reference to some of the composers who responded to pop and rock music later in the century.

Session 3. Music as part of other Forms

Here we will explore the ways in which ideas of progress and modernity impacted on the perceptions of various interdisciplinary genres, especially opera and ballet, but also cabaret/kabarett and the emerging form of film music. As we will see, some of these forms worked at developing a progressive identity (some more successfully than others), with examples drawn from across Europe and the US.

Session 4. Musical Simplicity

This is the first of a pair of classes that discusses opposing ideas about how music should look and sound. Here we will discuss the composers who responded to a variety of cultural and historical contexts by stripping their music back or developing less emotional forms of expression. This is particularly relevant for composers in the period immediately after WW1, but also for music from later in the century such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Toru Takemitsu.

Session 5. Musical Complexity

This is the counterpoint to the previous week, looking at composers who developed extremely complex systems for creating music and whose music reflects that approach. As well as being a key part of the narrative of ‘atonality’ introduced in the first class, these composers also formed part of the increasing post-WW2 movement towards an academic, university-based understanding of musical creation. This class will discuss a number of members of the Darmstadt school, as well as composers who took those ideas into the American university system such Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt.

Session 6. Music for the People

This class will look at the various movements across Europe and the US that aimed to create music that would be enjoyable by “the common people”, encompassing both capitalist and socialist contexts. Treading a fine line between the simplicity and complexity of the previous two classes, composers as diverse as William Grant Still, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich found various solutions to the issue of how the make art music accessible, inflected by the particular national politics around them.

Session 7. Ecstasy and Trance

Rather than looking at a style in itself, this class instead explores the composers who took particular emotional approaches to creating music, with the high and low intensity versions united by certain ideas about religion or spirituality. Featuring Kaikosru Sorabji and Olivier Messiaen on the one hand and Morton Feldman and the American Minimalist school on the other, this extremely diverse group also exerted a huge amount of influence on the composers who worked with them.

Session 8. Experimental Music

Here we will explore a particularly important thread, running through much of the century, of composers who challenged various conventions associated with music, blurring the lines one what counts as a piece, what counts as music, what counts as performance, etc. Discussing the work of Eric Satie, John Cage and members of the Fluxus group, this class will start to bring together various elements from the rest of the course.

Session 9. Music and Technology

Running alongside the idea of musical experiment, the technology that increasingly made it possible is the subject of this class. Continuing from the previous week in bringing together the threads of the course, here we will look at all the forms of recording, broadcasting, and generating completely new sounds that composers used as part of both personal and institutional contexts. The class material will come from across the whole century, including pieces by Luigi Russolo, Pierre Schaeffer, Laurie Anderson, Tristan Murail, Wendy Carlos, and Aphex Twinn.

Session 10. Playing with the Past? Varieties of Postmodernism

The final class reflects on some of the ideas of modernity and ‘progress’ that have been discussed throughout the course, and turns to some the composers who (arguably) started to move beyond them towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Exploring some of the more playful music from Luciano Berio and Györgi Ligeti to some of the most recent works by Nico Muhly and Max Richter, the course participants will be able to make their own mind up as to how much composers have really stopped fighting with the past.

Additional Reading

There is no compulsory reading required for this course, and there is no set course text.

Your Tutor

Bruno BowerDr Bruno Bower is a lively and enthusiastic tutor whose love of music is infectious. He is both an academic and a performer, having studied at Oriel College, Oxford, Birmingham Conservatoire, and King's College London. He completed his PhD at the Royal College of Music in 2016, with a thesis on 19th century programme notes for orchestral concerts.

He has written on subjects as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan, John Cage, and Victorian polymaths, and he is also the General Editor for critical editions of music by Peter Gellhorn and Norman O’Neill. He currently teaches music history and analysis to 1st and 2nd year students at Cambridge University, and is the principal oboist of West London Sinfonia and the cor anglais player for Chelsea Opera Group. He is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Course Delivery

All our online courses are taught live which means you will be taught alongside other students on the course by a tutor at a specific time. To take part in the course you must be able to attend the online session at the time stated for the course description.

All times stated are British Standard Time.

To take part you will need a computer, or laptop, or tablet computer, connected to the Internet. The device you use will also need to have a camera, microphone and speakers. Most devices now have these built in, but if not you might have to buy them from a computer shop and to connect them to your device.


This course will use Zoom as its online delivery method. Zoom is very easy to use and you do not need to set up a Zoom account to use it. Near the date of your first online session you will be sent an email with a web address (or URL) that will allow you to access the course. This is called the Course Link. All you need do is click on the Course Link in the email and you will be asked to enter your name. This is the name that will be seen by your tutor and other students in the class.

Once you have entered your name you might be asked to enter a password to enter the class. The password will be included in the email sent to you. Once you enter the password you will either be taken directly into the class, or asked to wait in a virtual waiting room until the tutor is ready to let you into the class.

We have also produced a Handy Guide to Zoom [pdf] which gives you basic information on how to use it.

All courses lasting two hours have a 10 minute break in the middle.  For one hour courses there is no break.

Course Fees and Rate Categories

HoursWeeksStandard RateInternal RateAssociate Rate
20  10  £205 £120 £160
All fee rates quoted are for the whole course     Please note there is no early-bird discount available for the April intake courses

Rate Categories and Discounts

Standard Rate

  • Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.

Internal Rate

  • Applies to current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors).
  • Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should email before completing the online enrolment form.

Associate Rate

  • Students (non-Imperial College)
  • Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
  • City & Guilds College Association members
  • Members of the Friends of Imperial College
  • Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
  • Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
  • Harrods staff
  • Historic Royal Palaces staff
  • Natural History Museum staff
  • Science Museum staff
  • South London Botanical Institute Members
  • Victoria and Albert Museum staff
  • Royal Geographical Society staff
  • Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
  • Austrian Cultural Forum staff
  • Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
  • Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
  • Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
  • Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
  • Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)
  • Members of the London Zoological Society
  • Members of the Kennel Club

Late enrolment

It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.

Applicable terms & conditions

Please read the Terms and Conditions [pdf] before enrolling on any course.

Term Dates

HoursWeeksAutumn termSpring termSummer term
 20  10 n/a n/a w/c 26 Apr - w/e 4 Jul 2021 (10 weeks)

Enrolment Process

Web enrolment starts 1 March 2021

Enrolment and payment run through the Imperial College eStore. Please click on the blue booking link on the relevant course page noting below instructions:

  • Our rate categories are explained on the course page and your applicable rate category must be selected on the eStore
  • First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
  • The booking process involves entering payment details before your course choice and applicant details are queried on an in-built questionnnaire which completes the process
  • The following email notifications are sent
What is sentWhen is it sentWhat does it contain
1. Payment confirmation Instantaneously following submission of your online application
  • Confirms payment, payment date, order number and course title
  • Should not be treated as a course-enrolment confirmation which is only sent later
2. Enrolment confirmation Sent in due course but likely not before the end of March. Please treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received
  • Re-onfirms your course choice
  • Shows your course's term dates
  • Confirms your course' day of the week & time
3. Programme information Usually sent Friday late afternoon the week before term starts
  • Contains further course details incl. classroom location and teacher contact information
  • Provides further general programme details
If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756

Any Questions?

If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.