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Contemporary vs. Modern: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 16, 2023
Contemporary refers to the present time or belonging to the same time period, while modern denotes characteristics of the present or recent times, often contrasted with the old or traditional.

Key Differences

Contemporary, when used as a noun, can denote a person who exists or lived at the same time as another. For instance, Shakespeare and Cervantes were contemporaries. Modern, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a connotation and primarily serves as an adjective describing something as current or new.
In the realm of art, design, and architecture, the distinction becomes more nuanced. Contemporary art or design pertains to artworks or designs being produced in the current time. Modern art or design, however, refers to a specific movement and style that emerged in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, emphasizing breaking away from traditional styles.
From a temporal standpoint, contemporary directly relates to the present moment or very recent past. It can shift as time progresses. What is considered contemporary today may not be so in the next decade. Modern, although denoting something current, can also be used to describe a specific time period in the past, especially when referencing the modern era or modernism.
Moreover, when describing ideas, methods, or technologies, contemporary usually emphasizes what's prevalent or relevant today, without necessarily contrasting it with the past. Modern often carries an implicit contrast, suggesting a break or evolution from older methods or ideas.
It's worth noting that these terms, while distinct, can occasionally be used interchangeably in casual contexts. But understanding their differences is crucial for precise communication, especially in academic or professional settings.

Comparison Chart


Relating to the present time.
Characteristics of the present or recent times.

Usage in Arts

Artworks/designs of the current era.
Specific movement from late 19th to mid-20th century.

Temporal Relativity

Directly relates to the present moment.
Can denote current or a specific past era.


What's prevalent or relevant today.
Break or evolution from older methods/ideas.

Noun Usage

Can denote a person from the same time.
Doesn’t serve this function.

Contemporary and Modern Definitions


Belonging to or occurring in the present.
The building's design is contemporary in style.


Characteristic of contemporary styles or schools of thought.
His taste in art is distinctly modern.


Existing or occurring at the same time.
Lincoln and Darwin were contemporary figures.


Reflecting recent changes or developments.
Modern society faces many challenges.


Living or occurring at the same time.
He was a contemporary of the composer Mozart.


Relating to the present or recent times.
Modern technology has made life more convenient.


Current or modern.
Contemporary issues require innovative solutions.


Not old-fashioned or outdated.
He prefers modern clothing styles.


From the same time period.
The two poets were contemporary with each other.


Pertaining to a specific period, especially the modern era.
Modern history begins after the Middle Ages.


Belonging to the same period of time
A fact documented by two contemporary sources.


Of or relating to recent times or the present
Modern history.


Of about the same age.


Characteristic or expressive of recent times or the present; contemporary or up-to-date
A modern lifestyle.
A modern way of thinking.


Does contemporary always refer to the present?

Primarily, but it can also denote things from the very recent past.

Can contemporary and modern be used interchangeably?

Occasionally in casual contexts, but they have distinct meanings, especially in specific fields like art.

Is modern art the same as contemporary art?

No, modern art refers to a specific movement from the late 19th to mid-20th century, while contemporary art is art of the current era.

Can someone be described as contemporary?

Yes, when referring to someone from the same time period as another.

In what contexts is it crucial to distinguish between contemporary and modern?

Especially in fields like art, design, architecture, and history, the distinction is vital.

Can a building style be both contemporary and modern?

Yes, if it incorporates elements of the modern movement and is also of the current era.

Can an event be described as modern?

Yes, if it reflects characteristics or ideas of the present or recent times.

How does contemporary fashion differ from modern fashion?

Contemporary fashion is what's in vogue now, while modern fashion can refer to styles from a specific period, especially the 20th century.

Are all modern ideas contemporary?

Not necessarily. While modern denotes current or recent ideas, not all of them might be relevant or prevalent today.

Is modern always about something new?

Often, but it can also refer to a specific past period, like the modern era.

Are contemporary values different from modern values?

Contemporary values are those held in the present era, while modern values might pertain to those emphasized during the modern era.

Can a contemporary method be old-fashioned?

It's unlikely, as contemporary methods would be those prevalent or relevant today.

Does contemporary literature mean modern literature?

Contemporary literature refers to literature written in recent times, while modern literature can pertain to a specific past period or the present.

Is the modern era the same as contemporary times?

Not exactly. The modern era refers to a specific historical period, while contemporary times refer to the present moment or very recent past.

How can one differentiate between contemporary and modern in daily speech?

Consider the context; contemporary often relates directly to the present, while modern can imply a break from the past.

Is the modern age the same as contemporary times?

Not exactly. The modern age refers to a specific period in history, while contemporary times relate to the present or very recent past.

How do contemporary designs differ from modern designs?

Contemporary designs are from the current era, while modern designs often refer to a style from the mid-20th century.

How does contemporary music differ from modern music?

Contemporary music is of the current era, while modern music might pertain to a style or period, especially from the 20th century.

Can an old technique be considered modern?

If it’s still relevant and widely used in recent times, it can be described as modern.

Is every contemporary artwork also modern?

Not necessarily. While contemporary artworks are from the current era, they might not always align with the characteristics of the modern art movement.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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