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What Is Impressionism in Music? - Definition, Characteristics & Timeline

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:28 Timeline
  • 0:48 Characteristics
  • 2:23 Composers
  • 2:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nancy Barlar
In this lesson, you will learn about Impressionism in music, focusing on the definition, timeline, and characteristics of this style of music along with the most prominent Impressionist composers.

Definition

When you look at a Monet from a distance, such as Water Lillies, you get the impression of a picture. However, if you were to study the work up close, it appears to be blotches of color rather than a coherent form. This style is Impressionism in art, and it is a similar idea as to what occurs in Impressionism in music.

Monet ~

Monet 'Water Lillies'

Impressionism in music is a 'musical style that stresses tone color, atmosphere, and fluidity' (Kamien 2015)

Timeline

At the start of the twentieth century, there were several new styles of music developing. Impressionism is one of these styles, and this movement took place between 1890-1920. Impressionism in music was heavily influenced by both Impressionist art and French symbolist poetry, which were prominent in this same time frame.

Characteristics

As per the definition, the primary characteristics of Impressionism are those of tone color, atmosphere, and fluidity.

Tone color is the 'quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument or voice from another', and it is a critical component of Impressionism. In previous style periods, composers wrote so that groups of various instruments would sound alike. The Impressionist composers were focused more on the individual sounds of each instrument, and they wrote in such a way as to highlight those particular tone colors. Highlighting each instrument also lead to a thin texture as few instruments were playing at any one time.

Impressionist music departed from the traditional harmonies and key structures of previous style periods as well. Chords were used more for the distinct sound they had instead of their role within a key, and this led to more chords being dissonant: 'unstable and tense'. Traditional western scales were abandoned.

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