Most of the composers we listen to today wrote during the Romantic period which began around 1830. The move away from intellectual musical content, predominant during the Baroque period, toward emotional writing became the prevailing trend. Programmatic writing was widespread; nature, literature, legends, national identity, and other non-musical stimuli captured musical imagination. Opera, a leading musical form first during the Classical period, became a prevailing force with the arrival of Richard Wagner on the scene. Emotional music became standard.
Next came the Modern period, beginning in 1900 and lasting through today. Composers experimented with musical systems other than tonality. As I reported earlier, the atonal composers, those of the “Second Viennese School,” principally Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg, and Anton Webern, constructed “tone rows” in which the twelve tones of an octave were laid out in an order that was then used as the basis for composing a piece. Equally famous was Béla Bartók (1881 to 1945), a Hungarian composer who experimented with folk music characteristics in his compositions, including alterations of the standard scale.
Other modern composers, too numerous to name, have explored the possibilities of systems other than tonality, but most have returned to the fold. In the process, they have tested the limits of dissonance and harmonic invention, but they have, for the most part, stayed within the bounds of tonal thinking. Intellectual music rebounded, but emotional appeal held its own.
So here we are, centuries after the tonal system first became dominant, still creating tonal music. And we have achieved something like balance between the intellectual and emotional. I’ll be curious to see where we go next.