Does experimental music mean giving up 'conventional' music?

Steve Reich - Clapping Music (written in 1972)

Does experimental music involve the giving up of music?

To answer this question both music and experimental music needs to be defined. Composer Elliot Schwartz (n.d) defines music as ‘the organisation of sound and time’. Similarly, composer Larry Austin (n.d) uses the word sound rather than harmony in his definition: ‘music is wanted sound’. The use of the word ‘sound’ is interesting as John Cage (n.d) said that the ‘more meaningful term; the organisation of sound’ should be used rather than the word music when talking about all music not played on ‘18th and 19th century instruments’, suggesting all post 19th century music is experimental music. However, the definition of experimental would contradict this suggestion. The dictionary definition of experimental is ‘involving a radically new or innovative style’, suggesting that experimental music is music that involves new and innovative ideas, for example, Royal Blood (band) can be considered experimental music as it features the use of heavy processing and FX to create a full rock band (four - five piece) sound from a two-piece band (drums and bass guitar). This definition of experimental music is heavily linked to John Cage’s use of non-traditional instruments and prepared piano, for example, in the piece ‘Water Walk’ (1960), which features heavy use of items not considered to be instruments (radios, water, a bath etc.) to create the sonic content of the piece.

Experimental music can also be viewed as music that doesn’t use the traditional western musical devices that most ‘popular’ and classical music does, as it breaks convention and innovates new musical devices. For example, ambient music and soundscapes can be seen as experimental music as the rhythms and timing used in ambient music and soundscapes can be very subtle to the point where it is barely noticeable, for example, in Stars Of The Lid’s ‘The Evil That Never Arrived’ (2007). Gottschalk (2016) suggests that experimental music can also feature innovation within the performance of music, rather than just the composition stage. This can be something as simple as making the audience themselves the performers, such as in John Cage’s ‘4.33’, which will be discussed in further detail, in the following section. But also changing the composition based on the performance, like in John Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape No.4: For Twelve Radios’, which will also be discussed in further detail, in the next section of this essay.

Experimental Music: A Piece Discussion

This section will discuss pieces of experimental music and decipher what makes them ‘experimental music’ rather than ‘music’. The pieces that will be analysed include John Cage’s ‘4.33’ and ‘Imaginary Landscape No.4: For 12 Radios’, as well as discussing Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ (1972), this section will also analyse pieces of current (last twenty years) experimental music, including: Bjork’s ‘Family’, Grimes’ ‘Dragvandil’ and Aphex Twin’s ‘Window Licker’. As well as deciphering what makes them experimental, this section will attempt to connect the experimental music of today (last twenty years) to the experimental music of John Cage’s era.

The first piece that will be discussed is John Cage’s ‘4.33’ (1952). This piece features no written music to be the ‘organisation of sound’, the piece isn’t in fact performed by the pianist but by the room and the audience and the actual timbres within the piece change with every time it is ‘performed’. John Cage spoke about his reasons for writing a piece that was effectively silence, saying ‘everything we do is music’. ‘4.33’ can be considered to be experimental music as it features unconformity to ‘regular’ musical ideas, Gottschalk (2016) states ‘what makes it (4.33) truly innovative is the fact that performance is transformed into acts of being and listening’. This means that rather than an audience simply listening to a performance and experiencing it from an outside perspective, they must listen very carefully to the small nuances of sound with the room and themselves, allowing them to listen and experience the performance from a perspective that cannot be achieved through thinking of music conventionally.

John Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape No.4: For Twelve Radios’ (1951) is an example of a piece of indeterminate experimental music. The piece is considered to be indeterminate as the score only features the certain times which each radio is turned on or off, meaning that what ever station the radio is tuned to could be playing any sort of sound, from music to speech or static. This piece of innovation/experimentation comes in the form of allowing the ‘instruments’ to ‘decide’ what sounds they play with the composer only choosing when the instruments do or do not play. Nyman (2011) adds that Cage employed the use of further ‘chance operations’ in the composition/experimentation process of the piece. As this piece seems to have been tortuously thought through during the composition process, like a lot of classical music. This means, much like ‘4.33’, this piece doesn’t require the giving up of music but the re-thinking of musical systems to include non-tonal sounds and chance.

Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ (1972) is a piece written for two performers and is written as a piece of ‘process’ music, meaning once a certain amount of things has happened, in this case repetitions of the main rhythm line, the process will change or be added to. In clapping music the change to the process is that every 8 repetitions the second performer is to drift a beat out of time, creating a phase effect. This piece is considered to be experimental music as the rhythm’s movements are very innovative and radical compared to ‘regular’ music. This piece also doesn’t require the giving up of music as it, nor the complete rethinking as it still holds the ‘basics’ of rhythm and structure found in most western music, but these ‘basics’ have been achieved using drastic and pioneering means.

Bjork’s 2015 track ‘Family’ can be considered experimental as it features the use of non-traditional sounds including atonal drones and off-harmony, as well as because the track doesn’t seem to have any clear time signature and exists in a almost free-time state for the first three minuets ten seconds. After the first 3 minutes ten seconds the song seems to become a completely different song, using different instrumental sounds, but with the timing issues still present. This song is a piece of experimental music as it features the prominent use of musical devices not found in most classical and popular western music, for example, off-harmony, drones and disjointed rhythm. Much like ‘Twelve Radios’ the sheer amount of work put into this song to make each section sound like a different song means that music itself hasn’t been given up on. However, the use of non-western musical functions and the multiple sections with different instrumentation means that; music has been look at from a different perspective from what most western composers and listeners are used to.

‘Dragvandil’ is a 2011 track by Grimes; the track features the use of atonal and non-melodic sounds, much like Cage’s ‘Water Walk’. ‘Dragvandil’ also features the use of heavily processed vocals, including vocals with rhythm super imposed on to them; the use of this heavy processing is reminiscent of the musique concrète (electro-acoustic) movement of experimental music, which featured the processing of sound to create new sounds, for example Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piece ‘Gesang der Junglinge’ (1955/6) and Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape No.1: For Turntable, Piano and Cymbal’ (1939). This track does feature use of traditional western harmony and rhythm. Therefore, this piece of experimental music doesn’t involve the giving up of music, for it to be listenable, nor does it require the rethinking of music as the track could be considered to only be a call back to electro-acoustic music, with its actual roots more in avant-garde/leftfield music rather than experimental.

Aphex Twin’s ‘Window Licker’ (1999), similarly to ‘Dragvandil’ features the use of atonal sound in rhythm, but each of the rhythms they have been put into are very stunted and irregular. Aphex Twin also creates lots of interesting melodic/tonal sounds through the use of FX processing, using the FX in innovative ways and ways that go against the norms of regular music production. For example lots of uses of EQ cuts in the places where the most resonance is, to create an underwater style effect. Aphex Twin also adds a distortion to the entire track for part of the last section. This is against the norms of production, as mass heavy distortions, and low fidelity effects tend to be what most producers are trying not to achieve. The use of stuttered rhythms and heavy tonal processing in ‘Window Licker’, mean that the piece can bee seen as a piece of experimental music, as the rhythms and uses of the processing is not heard in most ‘popular’ music. Much like the previous pieces, the way that each section has been planned and each rhythm has been programmed means that music hasn’t been ‘given up on’, but has been innovated and experimented with.

Each of these pieces are connected through three key points; the first point being that each piece features some form of innovation or progressive idea on the sounds that music can contain and the way that music is written/structured, for example, Cage’s ‘4.33’ features the idea that the music can contain only subtle sound from the room or the audience, focusing on what silence sounds like, whereas, ‘Windowlicker’ and ‘Family’ feature innovation in the use of rhythm and percussion of the tracks. The second point that connects each of the pieces is that they each feature the use (at least minimally) of atonal and rhythmical sound rather than full melodic scoring. This point is especially relevant in the cases of ‘Dragvandil’, ‘Clapping Music’ and ‘Imaginary Landscape No.4: For Twelve Radios’ which are each built on the use of unpredictable, atonal and rhythmic sound. The third point that each of the pieces are connected through the fact that they can be perceived in each that music hasn’t necessarily been ‘given up on’ but music has simply been thought about and perceived in a new way and differently than what a composer of music that is not experimental.

However, the experimental music of the current era (last twenty years) features a lot more melodic and ‘non-experimental’ content using the experimental aspects of each composition only as aspects, not as parts of the full composition. This maybe so that at of the pieces can be listened to by anyone, not just listeners with an ear for experimental music, but listeners with an ear for what ‘regular’ western ‘popular’ and classical music. This could also be how experimental music has evolved to become less elitist and for academics and more for the people, as Gottschalk (2016) implies that most experimental music of Cage’s era was for the elite and used for study and analysis by other composers and academics.

Experimental Music: Cage’s Answer

This section of the essay will discuss John Cage’s actual answer to the given question. John Cage gave his answer to this question when giving an address in 1957 to the MTNA (music teachers national association). In this address Cage hints that experimental music does in fact mean ‘giving up music’, stating that the ‘one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together’ (Cage, 1957) going on to define this statement in ‘musical terms’ as the idea that ‘any sounds may occur, in any combination, in any continuity’. This means that the giving up of music can allow musicians to think outside of the box, when composing songs, for example, using sound that is atonal rather than tonal sounds. Cage further eludes to experimental music involving the giving up of music when he describes ‘musical habits’ as ‘cautious stepping’ going on to state that experimental music has more ‘potential’ and ‘can occur at any point on a line or curve’. The final sentence of that statement (can occur at any point on a line or curve) very much means that as the musical norms have been given up, experimental music can have any structure starting and can be listened to at any point within the song.

‘Musical habits include scales, harmony, singly and in combination of a limited number of sound producing mechanisms. In mathematical terms these all concern discrete steps. They resemble walking—in the case of pitches, on stepping stones, twelve in number. This cautious stepping is not characteristic of the possibilities of magnetic tape, which is revealing to us that musical action or existence can occur at any point or along any line or curve… that we are, in fact, technically equipped to transform our contemporary awareness of natures manner of operation into art.’
- John Cage, addressing the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago (1957)

Experimental Music: A Conclusion

Through the research and analysis of different tracks from experimental composers, it can be said that experimental music doesn’t involve the giving up of music, necessarily. However, experimental music does involve the rethinking of music and the innovation of music, as can be heard/perceived with all of the pieces that were discussed in this essay. However, experimental musicians, such as Cage, can choose to ‘give up’ music so that they can see other means of organising sound, for example, electro-acoustic music and spectralism, which all involve the use of frequency rather than the use regular tonality and harmony. In conclusion to this essay; experimental music doesn’t have to involve the giving up of music, rather the rethinking and innovation of music. Experimental musicians and composers can give up music if they feel that it will help themselves with their future composition and performance ideas. However, it is not required when to write, perform or listen to experimental music.


Originally submitted to Leeds Beckett University


Cage, J. (1957). Experimental Music. Available: http://academic.evergreen.edu/a/arunc/compmusic/cage1/cage1.pdf

(Transcript of the address given in Chicago)

Gottschalk, J (2016). Experimental Music Since 1970. London, UK: Bloomsbury .

Nyman, M (2011). Experimental Music: Cage And Beyond. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Powell, W.E. (n.d.). Definitions Of Music. Available: <http://www.williamepowell.com/pdfs/DefinitionsOfMusic.pdf.> Last accessed 16 mar 17.


Aphex Twin (1999) Windowlicker –Single [CD], Track 1. UK: Warped

Bjork (2015) Vulnicura [CD], Track 5. UK: One Little Indian

Cage, J (1939-51) Imaginary Landscape No. 1-4

Cage, J (1952) 4.33

Cage, J (1960) Water Walk

Grimes (2010) Halfaxa [CD], Track 7. CAN: Artbus, UK: Lo Recordings

Stars Of The Lid (2007) Stars Of The Lid and Their Refinement of Decline [CD], Track 4. US: Kranky

Stockhausen, K (1955-56) Gesang de Junglinge

Reich, S (1972) Clapping Music 

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