Experimental music is an umbrella label for a diverse array of contemporary music, from classical and jazz to electronic music, that differs, often radically, from traditional forms of popular music in its composition, performance, and production. The music style, which dates back to the mid-twentieth century, uses various instruments and production methods, including using non-musical objects to create traditional instruments or sounds and manipulating the instruments or recording through physical or electroacoustic means. The compositional structure may even abandon traditional building blocks like [rhythm](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/understanding-rhythm-in-music), melody, [timbre](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/guide-to-timbre-in-music), or [tempo](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/music-101-what-is-tempo-how-is-tempo-used-in-music) in favor of free improvisation or total deconstruction. \n\nThough the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” are sometimes used interchangeably, some music scholars and composers consider avant-garde music, which aims to innovate, as the furthest expression of an established musical form. Experimentalism is entirely separate from any musical form and focuses on discovery and playfulness without an underlying intention.\nThe origins of experimental music trace back to the midpoint of the twentieth century. Here is a brief overview of the label:\n\n- __Beginnings__. Though there are historical precedents for experimental music, most notably the [classical music](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/classical-era-music-guide) created by the American Experimental School in the early twentieth century, music historians consider its launching point to be the 1950s. During this period, French composer and engineer Pierre Schaeffer began using the term “*musique experimentale*” (experimental music) as a rubric for non-traditional composing techniques, including electronic music and *musique concréte*, a compositional style in which recorded sounds, from [spoken word](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-spoken-word-poetry) passages and field recordings to [synthesizers](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-do-synthesizers-work), were manipulated and folded into music. American composer John Cage, who became a leading figure in experimental music, also began using the term to describe music without a predetermined outcome.\n- __Pioneers__. Both definitions were broad enough to allow various artists and compositions to fall under the experimental music label. This affiliation of artists came from all mediums, like the New York School, which included composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, and [Fluxus art](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/fluxus-art-explained), an anti-commercial, event-driven movement of the 1960s that Cage influenced. Popular artists in the Fluxus movement include Yoko Ono and composer La Monte Young, a pioneering figure in minimal music. \n- __Other genres enter the fold__. Eventually, other forms of music were included under the experimental umbrella, like free improvisation, which included the free jazz of instrumentalists like saxophonist John Coltrane and guitarist Derek Bailey, and New York’s Downtown and No Wave scenes of the 1970s, which swirled around [jazz](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-jazz), rock, punk, and New Wave musicians and bands. Many electronic music forms fell under the experimental label—most notably the minimalist works of pianists Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. As performed by former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno, ambient music was also considered experimental for its rejection of beat and [melody](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/music-101-what-is-melody).\nMany characteristics recur throughout the various forms of experimental music, including:\n\n1. __Indeterminacy__. Also known as aleatoric music, indeterminacy in music leaves the length, sound, and performance style of composition to chance and is a key component of experimental music. A perfect example is John Cage’s “Music of Changes” (1951), which used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text, to guide the sound and length of each performance. \n2. __Improvisation__. Allowing the musicians to guide a song through free improvisation is central to forms of experimental music, including jazz, [noise rock](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/noise-rock-guide), minimalism, and electronic music. The legendary [soundtrack](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/soundtrack-vs-score) for the 1964 experimental film *New York Eye and Ear Control* features saxophonist Albert Ayler and other [free jazz](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-free-jazz) giants playing with no direction beyond the avoidance of solos.\n3. __Unique instruments__. Experimental music can feature traditional instruments played in non-traditional ways, such as the prepared piano, which has objects like bolts, cutlery, and office supplies placed on the strings to alter the sound. It can also feature unusual instruments, like the Stylophone, a synth operated by a stylus, or objects used as instruments, ranging from household appliances to vegetables.\nExperimentalism is common in new, popular music, including dance music and indie hip-hop, like glitch hop, which take advantage of technological advancements that make experimentation with sounds a much easier undertaking. Here are a few experimental music artists whose works expanded the form’s definition:\n\n1. __John Cage__. Twentieth-century experimental music owes much to composer and music theorist John Cage, who helped to establish its boundaries (or lack thereof) with bold, imaginative compositions. His best-known works include “4’33,” which requires audiences to listen to the environment of a performance by instructing the musicians not to play a single musical note.\n2. __La Monte Young__. A leading figure in minimalism and drone, La Monte Young’s students and collaborators became major figures of experimental music in their own right, from Terry Riley and Tony Conrad to Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground. One of Young’s most famous creations is “The Well-Tuned Piano,” a five-plus-hour improvisation for solo piano, which Young considered a continuous piece since its creation in 1964.\n3. __Steve Reich__. The use of effects such as looping, phasing, and pulsing in minimalist music was cemented by composer Steve Reich, a major figure in experimental music for more than a half-century. His work, which profoundly influenced everyone from indie rocker Sufjan Stevens to New Age guitarist Michael Hedges, includes the 1978 album *Music for 18 Musicians*, which features a cycle of music pieces based on 11 [chords](https://www.masterclass.com/articles/music-101-what-is-a-chord-learn-the-difference-between-major-chords-vs-minor-chords) that begin again upon its completion. \n4. __Terry Riley__. Composer and performer Terry Riley’s groundbreaking music included 1964’s “In C” and the 1969 album *A Rainbow in Curved Air*, both of which plumbed the furthest reaches of repetition and tape looping as compositional techniques. The influence of Riley’s work can be heard in the looping organ of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and John Cale’s keyboard part in the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”\nBecome a better musician with the [MasterClass Annual Membership](https://www.masterclass.com). Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by the world’s best, including Herbie Hancock, Itzhak Perlman, St. Vincent, Sheila E., Timbaland, Tom Morello, and more.\n\nExperimental music has pushed the boundaries of how we understand music for the past half-century.