In general, as David Nicholls stated, "...very generally, avant-garde music can be viewed as occupying an extreme position within the tradition, while experimental music lies outside it" (Nicholls 1998, 318). That tradition is the inheritance of common-practice Western art music, with its concern for increased technical complexity, historical inheritance, composer intention and other features. In general, and at least originally, experimental music took its inspiration from non-Western sources and from varying times. It may take its inspiration (directly in terms of generating systems) from other media; practitioners may or may not be professionals in the traditional sense of the word, although they may still be trained in their work and adept at it.
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.
The term "experimental music" was used contemporaneously for electronic music, particularly in the early musique concrète work of Schaeffer and Henry in France and in the Experimental Studios at the University of Illinois, run by Lejaren Hiller. "Experimental" electronic composition may be "experimental" in the sense used in Nyman (for instance, Cage, Cartridge Music or the early work of Alvin Lucier); it may also lie more comfortably with the avant garde.
Aleatoric music - A term coined by Werner Meyer-Eppler and used by Boulez and other composers of the avant garde (in Europe) to refer to a strictly limited form of indeterminacy, also called "controlled chance". As this distinction was misunderstood, the term is often (and somewhat inaccurately) used interchangeably with, or in place of, "indeterminacy".
Indeterminate 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. This term is used by experimental composers, performers and scholars working in experimental music in the United States, Britain, and in other countries influenced by Cagean aesthetics.
Graphic notation - Music which is written in the form of diagrams or drawings rather than using “conventional” notation (with staves, clefs, notes, etc).
Literalism - Music that rejects the aesthetic as motivating force for the creation and pursuit of sound, using either the basic building blocks of orchestral composition (strict literalism) or sounds present at the site of performance (direct literalism) instead.
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 La Monte Young, George Brecht, Yoko Ono etc. and far beyond.
 Notable composers and performers of experimental music
- See: List of experimental musicians
 See also
 Further reading
- Bailey, Derek. 1980. "Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music". Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall; Ashbourne: Moorland. ISBN 0136070442. Second edition, London: British Library National Sound Archive, 1992. ISBN 0712305068
- Experimental Musical Instruments. 1985–1999. A periodical (no longer published) devoted to experimental music and instruments
- Holmes, Thomas B. 2002. Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Second edition. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415936438
- John Cage. 1961. "Experimental Music" and "Experimental Music: Doctrine", in Silence: Lectures and Writings, 7–12 and 13–17. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
- Cope, David. 1997. Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864737-8.
- Nicholls, David. 1998. "Avant-garde and Experimental Music." In Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521454298
- Nyman, Michael. 1974. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028712005. Second edition, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521652979
 External links
- EMACM - The Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative 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.
- Modisti - 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.
- Oddmusic - Focused on odd, unusual, unique and experimental musical instruments and music created in unusual ways or with unusual instruments. With Gallery, sound clips, pictures of instruments, discussion, resources and links to related sites.
- Random Function - A community providing a flexible, open forum to help showcase experimental / electronic sound work in the Bristol / Bath area of the UK.
- SASSAS - Los Angeles-based non-profit organization that supports experimental music and has an extensive streaming archive of concert material.
- UbuWeb - Independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts. UbuWeb has an extensive MP3 collection of experimental music of great historical significance for download.