The concept of experimental music can be traced back to the mid-20th century in Europe and North America, when American composer John Cage became one of the first people to coin the term. Experimental music is the umbrella term for a diverse genre that pushes the boundaries and the very definition of music itself.
Experimental music is notable for its tendency to abandon the traditional structure of rhythm, melody, timbre, and tempo in place of either improvisation or deconstructive intent. Because of this, experimental music is frequently confused with avant-garde music; the key distinction, however, can be found in the innovative nature of avant-garde music, while experimental music usually is characterised by its playfulness and discovery without intent.
Some defining characteristics of experimental music include indeterminacy, also known as aleatoric music, which confronts the vague nature of music. It leaves the sound, performance, and length to chance; unpredictability therefore becomes a major influence. One of the best examples of this is John Cage’s 1951 score, ‘Music of Changes’, which uses an ancient Chinese text called the I Ching to guide the sound and length of its performance.
Improvisation is the next characteristic of experimental music, allowing musicians to use a variety of genres, from jazz to noise rock, to create forward-thinking compositions. Take the soundtrack of 1964 film New York Eye and Ear Control for example, which features saxophonist Albert Ayler and other free jazz players performing with no direction nor focus during their solos.
Another recurring characteristic are the unique instruments used within the genre. Experimental music features traditional instruments, but played in a non-conventional manner, or using objects like cutlery or office supplies to alter the sound. The range of instruments can extend even to household appliances and food!
Today, experimental music can be found even in popular music. With today’s technological advances, experimenting with sound has become truly mainstream. Despite the esoteric nature of experimental music, the genre has still succeeded in delivering meaning to a myriad of musical styles that it should not be solely labeled as noise anymore.
Experimental music is a contradiction or norm merely has to satisfy the bare minimum required to be identified as music. This massive scope has led to a vast category of experimental music artists who use the art form to deliver a message.
The term experimental music has opened up a wide range of other sub-genres, namely avant-rock, deconstructed folk, free jazz, dense noise, outer limits electronics, abstract spoken word, and much more. From field recordings to spontaneous music exploratory, these creatives are creating new and exciting spectrums to music every day.
This month’s Spotify playlist focuses on the artists championing experimental music. From deconstructing what we hear on the radio, to showing a different side to mundane sounds, press play on our playlist to enjoy a curation of exciting experimental tunes.
Cover Image: Hulki Okan Tabak / Unsplash
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
Kevin is a Malaysian who spends way too much time on Twitter and YouTube. He has also been listening to the same podcast since 2016 on repeat.