Postmodern music is not a distinct musical style, but rather refers to music of the postmodern era. The terms "postmodern", "postmodernism", "postmodernist", and "postmodernity" are exasperating terms (Bertens 1995, 3). Indeed, postmodernists question the tight definitions and categories of academic disciplines, which they regard simply as the remnants of modernity (Rosenau 1992, 6–7).
Postmodernism in music is not a distinct musical style, but rather refers to music of the postmodern era. Postmodernist music, on the other hand, shares characteristics with postmodernist art—that is, art that comes after and reacts against modernism (see Modernism in Music).
Fredric Jameson, a major figure in the thinking on postmodernism and culture, calls postmodernism "the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism" (Jameson 1991, 46), meaning that, through globalization, postmodern culture is tied inextricably with capitalism (Mark Fisher, writing 20 years later, goes further, essentially calling it the sole cultural possibility (Fisher 2009, 4)). Drawing from Jameson and other theorists, David Beard and Kenneth Gloag argue that, in music, postmodernism is not just an attitude but also an inevitability in the current cultural climate of fragmentation (Beard and Gloag 2005, 141–45). As early as 1938, Theodor Adorno had already identified a trend toward the dissolution of "a culturally dominant set of values" (Beard and Gloag 2005, 141), citing the commodification of all genres as beginning of the end of genre or value distinctions in music (Adorno 2002, 293–95).
In some respects, Postmodern music could be categorized as simply the music of the postmodern era, or music that follows aesthetic and philosophical trends of postmodernism, but with Jameson in mind, it is clear these definitions are inadequate. As the name suggests, the postmodernist movement formed partly in reaction to the ideals of modernism, but in fact postmodern music is more to do with functionality and the effect of globalization than it is with a specific reaction, movement, or attitude (Beard and Gloag 2005, 142). In the face of capitalism, Jameson says, "It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place" (Jameson 1991, ix).
Jonathan Kramer posits the idea (following Umberto Eco and Jean-François Lyotard) that postmodernism (including musical postmodernism) is less a surface style or historical period (i.e., condition) than an attitude. Kramer enumerates 16 (arguably subjective) "characteristics of postmodern music, by which I mean music that is understood in a postmodern manner, or that calls forth postmodern listening strategies, or that provides postmodern listening experiences, or that exhibits postmodern compositional practices." According to Kramer (2002, 16–17), postmodern music: