Experimental music is a compositional tradition that arose in the mid-20th century, particularly in North America, of music composed in such a way that its outcome is unforeseeable. The American composer John Cage is seen as one of the more notable composers associated with this music (, 174). In France, as early as 1953, Pierre Schaeffer had begun using the term "musique expérimentale" to describe compositional activities that incorporated tape music, musique concrète, and elektronische Musik. Also, in America, a quite distinct sense of the term was used in the late 1950s to describe computer-controlled composition associated with composers like Lejaren Hiller.

Harry Partch as well as Ivor Darreg worked with additional tuning scales based on the physical laws for harmonic music. For this music they both developed a group of experimental musical instruments. Musique concrète (French; literally, "concrete music"), is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. Free improvisation or free music is improvised music without any rules beyond the taste or inclination of the musician(s) involved; in a large number of cases the musicians make an active effort to avoid overt references to recognisable musical genres.

Elements of experimental music include indeterminate music, in which the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance.

Origin and definition


The Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète (GRMC), under the leadership of Pierre Schaeffer, organised the First International Decade of Experimental Music between 8 and 18 June 1953. This appears to have been an attempt by Schaeffer to reverse the assimilation of musique concrète into the German elektronische Musik, and instead tried to subsume musique concrète, elektronische Musik, tape music, and world music under the rubric "musique experimentale" (, 18). Publication of Schaeffer's manifesto () was delayed by four years, by which time Schaeffer was favouring the term "recherche musicale" (music research), though he never wholly abandoned "musique expérimentale" (, 19; , 557).


John Cage was additionally using the term as early as 1955. According to Cage's definition, "an experimental action is one the outcome of which isn't foreseen" (, 39), and he had been specifically interested in completed works that performed an unpredictable action (, 197). In Germany, the publication of Cage's article was anticipated by several months in a lecture delivered by Wolfgang Edward Rebner at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse on 13 August 1954, titled “Amerikanische Experimentalmusik". Rebner's lecture extended the concept back in time to include Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell, as well as Cage, due to their focus on sound as such rather than compositional method ().


Composer and critic Michael Nyman starts from Cage's definition (Nyman 1974, 1), and develops the term "experimental" additionally to describe the work of additional American composers (Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Meredith Monk, Malcolm Goldstein, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, John Cale, Steve Reich, etc.), as well as composers like Gavin Bryars, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury, Frederic Rzewski, and Keith Rowe (, 78–81, 93–115). Nyman opposes experimental music to the European avant-garde of the time (Boulez, Kagel, Xenakis, Birtwistle, Berio, Stockhausen, and Bussotti), for whom "The identity of a composition is of paramount importance" (, 2 and 9). The word "experimental" in the former cases "is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success or failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown" ().

David Cope additionally distinguishes between experimental and avant garde, describing experimental music as that "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo" (, 222). David Nicholls, too, makes this distinction, saying that "...very generally, avant-garde music can be viewed as occupying an extreme position within the tradition, while experimental music lies outside it" (, 318).

Warren Burt cautions that, as "a combination of leading-edge techniques and a certain exploratory attitude", experimental music requires a broad and inclusive definition, "a series of ands, if you will", encompassing such areas as "Cageian influences and work with low technology and improvisation and sound poetry and linguistics and new instrument building and multimedia and music theatre and work with high technology and community music, amongst others, when these activities are done with the aim of finding those musics 'we don't like, yet,' [citing Herbert Brün] in a 'problem-seeking environment' [citing Chris Mann]” (, 5).

Benjamin Piekut argues that this "consensus view of experimentalism" is based on an a priori "grouping", rather than asking the question "How have these composers been collected together in the first place, that they can now be the subject of a description?" That is, "for the most part, experimental music studies describes [sic] a category without really explaining it" (, 2–5). He finds laudable exceptions in the work of David Nicholls and, especially, Amy Beal (, 5), and concludes from their work that "The fundamental ontological shift that marks experimentalism as an achievement is that from representationalism to performativity", so that "an explanation of experimentalism that already assumes the category it purports to explain is an exercise in metaphysics, not ontology" (, 7).

Leonard B. Meyer, on the additional hand, includes under "experimental music" composers rejected by Nyman, like Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as the techniques of "total serialism" (, 106–107 and 266), holding that "there is no single, or even pre-eminent, experimental music, but rather a plethora of different methods and kinds" (, 237).

Abortive critical term

In the 1950s, the term "experimental" was most often applied by conservative music critics—along with a number of additional words, like "engineers art", "musical splitting of the atom", "alchemist's kitchen", "atonal", and "serial"—as a deprecating jargon term, which must be regarded as "abortive concepts", after they didn't "grasp a subject" (, 21). This was an attempt to marginalize, and thereby dismiss various kinds of music that didn't conform to established conventions (, 189). In 1955, Pierre Boulez identified it as a "new definition that makes it possible to restrict to a laboratory, which is tolerated but subject to inspection, all attempts to corrupt musical morals. Once they have set limits to the danger, the good ostriches go to sleep again and wake only to stamp their feet with rage when they're obliged to accept the bitter fact of the periodical ravages caused by experiment." He concludes, "There is no such thing as experimental music … but there's a quite real distinction between sterility and invention" (, 430 and 431). Starting in the 1960s, "experimental music" began to be used in America for almost the opposite purpose, in an attempt to establish an historical category to help legitimise a loosely identified group of radically innovative, "outsider" composers. Whatever success this might have had in academe, this attempt to construct a genre was as abortive as the meaningless namecalling noted by Metzger, after by the "genre's" own definition the work it includes is "radically different and highly individualistic" (, 190). It is therefore not a genre, but an open category, "because any attempt to classify a phenomenon as unclassifiable and (often) elusive as experimental music must be partial" (, 5). Furthermore, the characteristic indeterminacy in performance "guarantees that two versions of the same piece will have virtually no perceptible musical 'facts' in common" (, 9).

Computer composition

In the late 1950s, Lejaren Hiller and L. M. Isaacson used the term in connexion with computer-controlled composition, in the scientific sense of "experiment" (): making predictions for new compositions based on established musical technique (, 194–95). The term "experimental music" was used contemporaneously for electronic music, particularly in the early musique concrète work of Schaeffer and Henry in France (, 298). There is a considerable overlap between Downtown music and what's more generally called experimental music, especially as that term was defined at length by Nyman in his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1974, second edition 1999).


Influential antecedents

A number of early 20th-century American composers, seen as precedents to and influences on John Cage, are at times referred to as the "American Experimental School". These include Charles Ives, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and John Becker (; ).

New York School

Artists: John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Related: Merce Cunningham

Microtonal music

Harry Partch as well as Ivor Darreg worked with additional tuning scales based on the physical laws for harmonic music. For this music they both developed custom-built musical instruments most often characterised as experimental instruments. La Monte Young is known for using this technique when he began working on his minimal drone pieces which consisted of layers of sounds in different pitches. The Mexican composer Julián Carrillo (1875–1965) developed a theory of microtonal music which he dubbed "The Thirteenth Sound", which additionally involved building specially designed instruments (e.g., microtonal pianos and harps). See additionally spectral music.

Musique concrète

Musique concrète (French; literally, "concrete music"), is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. The compositional material isn't restricted to the inclusion of sonorities derived from musical instruments or voices, nor to elements traditionally thought of as "musical" (melody, harmony, rhythm, metre and so on). The theoretical underpinnings of the aesthetic were developed by Pierre Schaeffer, beginning in the late 1940s.


Fluxus was an artistic movement started in the 1960s, characterised by an increased theatricality and the use of mixed media. An Additional known musical aspect appearing in the Fluxus movement was the use of Primal Scream at performances, derived from the primal therapy. Yoko Ono used this technique of expression ().



The term "experimental" has at times been applied to the mixture of recognisable music genres, especially those identified with specific ethnic groups, as found for example in the music of Laurie Anderson, Chou Wen-chung, Steve Reich, Kevin Volans, Martin Scherzinger, Michael Blake, and Rüdiger Meyer (; ; ).

Free improvisation

Free improvisation or free music is improvised music without any rules beyond the taste or inclination of the musician(s) involved; in a large number of cases the musicians make an active effort to avoid overt references to recognisable musical genres. The term is somewhat paradoxical, after it can be considered both as a technique (employed by any musician who wishes to disregard rigid genres and forms) and as a recognisable genre in its own right.


The Residents started in the seventies as an idiosyncratic musical group mixing all kinds of artistic genres like pop music, electronic music, experimental music with movies, comic books and performance art (). Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca composed multi guitar compositions in the late 1970s. Chatham worked for a few time with LaMonte Young and afterwards mixed the experimental musical ideas with punk rock in his piece Guitar Trio. Lydia Lunch started incorporating spoken word with punk rock and Mars explored new sliding guitar techniques. Arto Lindsay neglected to use any kind of musical practise or theory to develop an idiosyncratic atonal playing technique. DNA and James Chance are additional famous no wave artists. Chance later on moved more up to Free improvisation. The No Wave movement was closely related to transgressive art and, just like Fluxus, most often mixed performance art with music (). It is alternatively seen, however, as an avant-garde offshoot of 1970s punk, and a genre related to experimental rock ().