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Experimental music

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Experimental music

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Experimental music is any music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is. There is an overlap with avant-garde music. John Cage was a pioneer in experimental music and defined and gave credibility to the form. David Cope (1997), describes experimental music as that, "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo."

For experimental popular music see: art rock.

Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond uses the term "experimental" to describe the work of American modernist composers (John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, etc.) as opposed to the European avant-garde at the time (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez). The "experiment" is not whether a piece succeeds or fails, but is in the fact that the outcome of the piece is uncertain (or unforeseeable).

As with other edge forms that push the limits of a particular form of expression, there is little agreement as to the boundaries of experimental music, even amongst its practitioners. On the one hand, some experimental music is an extension of traditional music, adding unconventional instruments, modifications to instruments, noises, and other novelties to (for example) orchestral compositions. At the other extreme, there are performances that most listeners would not characterize as music at all.

While much discussion of experimental music centers on definitional issues and its validity as a musical form, the most frequently performed experimental music is entertaining and, at its best, can lead the listener to question core assumptions about the nature of music.



Aleatoric music - Also called 'chance music' (Cage's habitual usage). Music in which the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance.

Graphic notation - Music which is written in the form of diagrams or drawings rather than using “conventional” notation (with staves, clefs, notes etc).

Microtones - A pitch interval that is smaller than a semitone. This includes quarter tones and intervals even smaller. Composers have, for example, experimented in dividing the octave into 31 and 53 microtones, and using this scale as a basis for composition.


Some of the more common techniques include:

  • "Prepared" instruments—ordinary instruments modified in their tuning or sound-producing characteristics. For example, guitar strings can have a weight attached at a certain point, changing their harmonic characteristics (Keith Rowe is one musician to have experimented with such techniques). Cage's prepared piano was one of the first such instruments.
  • Unconventional playing techniques—for example, strings on a piano can be manipulated directly instead of being played the orthodox, keyboard-based way (an innovation of Henry Cowell's known as "string piano"), a dozen or more piano keys may be depressed simultaneously with the forearm to produce a tone cluster (another technique popularized by Cowell), or the tuning pegs on a guitar can be rotated while a note sounds (called a "tuner glissando").
  • Incorporation of instruments, tunings, rhythms or scales from non-Western musical traditions.
  • Use of sound sources other than conventional musical instruments such as trash cans, telephone ringers, and doors slamming.
  • Playing with deliberate disregard for the ordinary musical controls (pitch, duration, volume).
  • Use of 'radical' scores which serve as non-conventional written/graphic 'instructions' to be actively interpreted by the performer(s). Cage is credited with the original development of the radical score and this influence continued through other composers/artists such as LaMonte Young, George Brecht, Yoko Ono etc. and far beyond. The most radical score of all is often said to be 'December 1952' by Earle Brown, who studied under Cage.

Cope (ibid) describes a "basic outline" from "simple to...complex":

  • Antimusic
  • Biomusic
  • Situation and circumstance music
  • Soundscapes

Notable composers and performers of experimental music

David Behrman
Richard Bone
John Cage
Tony Conrad
Philip Corner
Henry Cowell
Current 93
Einstuerzende Neubauten
The Hafler Trio
Alvin Lucier
Phill Niblock
Charlemagne Palestine
Mike Patton
Jim O'Rourke
Luigi Russolo
Morton Subotnick
Shinjuku Thief
Throbbing Gristle
Yasunao Tone
Iannis Xenakis
LaMonte Young
Frank Zappa
John Zorn

See also

Further reading

Derek Bailey, "Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice" (1980)
John Cage, "Experimental Music" and "Experimental Music: Doctrine", in Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961)
Experimental Musical Instruments - a periodical (no longer published) devoted to experimental music and instruments
Thomas B. Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition (2002)
Michael Nyman, Experimental Music, Cage and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1974)


  • David Cope (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028647378.

External links


  • everyone.doesntexist - Experimental request radio stream.
  • The R Duck show radio archives - Free Radio Santa Cruz (FRSC) 101.1 FM in Santa Cruz, the only experimental live improvised electronic music pirate radio show.
  • Resonance 104.4FM - Resonance 104.4fm is London's first radio art station, brought to you by London Musicians Collective, frequently broadcasts experimental and free improvised performance works.
  • Urban_RADIO - A reservoir of new experimental music.


  • EMACM - The Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-op Malaysia.
  • Experimental Music Catalogue - Experimental Music Catalogue has been publishing American and British experimental music scores and recordings since 1969. This site sponsors the Journal of Experimental Music Studies (JEMS), a peer-reviewed online journal devoted to experimental music.
  • Hertz-Lion - Hertz-Lion is a digest of links to websites devoted to those involved in the creation of leftfield and avant-garde music, with different pages devoted to venues, labels, artists and culture. Eclectic and wide-ranging.
  • Infinite Sector Collective The Infinite Sector is a non-profit collective and netlabel dedicated to sharing and promoting free experimental music, noise music, and electronica. Members include musicians, bands, and artists from all corners of the globe.
  • Interactive virtual environment in which information about various kinds of activities in the realm of experimental music is circulated by means of a web based mail list system, which contents are progressively filed as they are produced. Modisti currently offers through its lists promotion activities such as concerts, festivals, etc., as well as record releases.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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