What Is Expressionism in Music?

Expressionism is a term applied to an artistic style that depicts the expression of individual subjective experience, as opposed to objective reality. Expressionist artists use their art to convey feelings and emotion rather than physical reality. These feelings can be derived from nature, society, or aesthetics.

Expressionism in music is a term for composition and performance that emphasizes the expression of strong feelings. Though expressionism was first defined as an artistic movement, it has since been applied to other branches of the arts. The word expressionist is sometimes used as a synonym for “modern artist” or composer.

Why Was Expressionistic Music Developed   

Expressionistic music was developed by a group of composers who wanted to make their compositional style different from the traditional music of the time. It was also developed in response to the modernism movement.

The music focused on creating pieces that captured the composer’s imagination and emotions. This differentiated it from other styles of music, such as baroque, classical, and romantic, in which representative imitation and the recreation of reality were very important.

Style of Expressionism

Expressionism music has an expressionistic style, that is, an expression of subjective feeling, expression of alienation, and expression of anxiety.

Artists use expressionistic techniques to emphasize the expressionist movement in art. The most common expressionist techniques are dissonant harmony caused by a clash between two different pitches (dissonant harmony), expressionist decorations on melody, expressionist tone painting, and expressionist decorations.

Expressionism Art Movement

Expressionism is a movement that was developed as a reaction against the academic rules of composition of the Romantic Period, which are based on mechanical repetition, the development of musical forms by following strict rules, and the expression of feelings through music.

It is difficult to describe the expressionist movement since it has many similarities with other movements, such as Impressionism, Symbolism, and Futurism.

Expressionists wanted to express their own individuality, but they also had their own style of expression, which are generally based on an expressionist technique called the synthesis of several expressionist techniques:

  • Distortion of sounds and melodies expresses the subjective feelings of expressionists in music. When you listen to expressionist music with distortions or atonal harmony, it seems that your mind is trying to understand with difficulty what is happening – this gives an expressionist piece emotion and suggests anxiety. 
  • Harshness and bitterness show expressionist music as expressions of criticism, discontent, and social alienation.
  • Irrationalism expresses expressionist feeling by giving the listener a sense that an expressionist piece is not organized or planned like other styles such as classical or impressionistic music. Irrationalism in expressionist music shows you unpredictable endings and a lack of emotional balance. 

These techniques cause expressionist music to have negative emotions, expression of anxiety, and alienation.

When Did the Expressionist Era Begin?

The expressionist era is often considered to have begun in the early 20th century. In the beginning, the expressionist movement focused on painting and later branched out to other mediums, such as sculpture, architecture, dance, literature, and music.

Importance of Expressionism in Music

Expressionism was an important phase in the history of music for two reasons: 

  1. It challenged people’s thinking about music and art because it made people think that art does not have to be composed in a conventional style.
  1. Expressionism forced composers to look for new methods of music composition. This made them create their own original style of music instead of using other people’s ideas, which made it possible for them to develop their own individual sound that is different from the rest of the composers.

Expressionism was significant for music because it made people think about how they were listening to music and what they thought about it. This encouraged creativity and uniqueness in music composition, which is why many composers today use this style of music. 

Composers of the Expressionist Era

Expressionism in music is usually associated with composers Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. 

Arnold Schoenberg, a Viennese composer, was one of the pioneers of expressionism in classical music. He developed a new system of composing called serialism or twelve-tone music. He was also at the center of the expressionist movement in art that happened before expressionist music.

Schoenberg created expressionist pieces such as his opus 11. The piece is inspired by expressionist dance, and it has many expressionistic features such as: 

  • Dissonant harmony caused by a clash between two different pitches (dissonant harmony)  – expressionist decorations in the melody (expressionist decorations)
  • Expressionist fluctuations in dynamics and expressionist tone painting

Anton Webern was an Austrian composer who developed twelve-tone music, so he has used expressionism to give his music an expression of alienation and anxiety, just like Arnold Schoenberg did. He has used expressionist pieces such as his opus 21 and expressionist techniques such as:

  • Expressionist decorations on melody  – dissonant harmony that comes from the clash between two different pitches (dissonant harmony)  – expressionist tone painting

Alban Berg was a close friend of Schoenberg, and he was also an expressionist composer. He was expressionist in expressionistic pieces such as his opus 1 and expressionistic techniques:

  • Dissonant harmony caused by a clash between two different pitches (dissonant harmony)  – expressionist tone painting
  • Expressionist decorations in melody

The expressionist music movement ended in the middle of the 20th century, but expressionist music was still composed after expressionism ended. It is very important to understand that expressionistic music was not a particular style; it just meant the expression of subjective feelings and alienation.


Expressionism in music is intended to convey the emotional state of an artist. Its goal is to express the inner thoughts and feelings of the composer rather than to tell a story or make a statement.  

In short, expressionism in music is not just how the music sounds but how it makes the listener feel.