Wikipedia defines experimental music as “any music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is,” and for the purpose of this column, I will stick with that relatively simple definition. Experimental music is often, to me, music which defies expectation. More often than not when you listen to music, whether actively or passively, you hold certain expectations of what it will sound like or how it will make you feel.
So why should we listen to experimental music?
My favorite reasons as to why you should listen to experimental music revolve around experiencing something new, challenging your own definitions and views on what is and what isn’t music, and the thrill of discovery. We live in a world where almost every inch of ground has been mapped. Uncharted territory is a thing of the past, and we can’t just set off exploring in an arbitrary direction to truly face the unknown. Experimental music can give us the chance to experience that feeling of novelty that, thanks to the information age, has been so absent in our lives, and can allow us to make a very personal connection with the world of sound around us that will forever remain unexplored simply because it is not for others to map, describe, or explain.
If experimental music is so exciting, why aren’t more people listening to it?
So many people who enjoy music are stuck within the output of their preferred genres and artists. Habits and conditioning could be blamed, and I think people could also be afraid of changing their opinions. If we’ve liked the same things for most of our lives, what kind of impact would a change to that set of things have on ourselves? You might just find music outside of your boundaries difficult to relate to, or maybe you think it sounds bad or “wrong.”
How does one break into experimental music?
What I propose is to probe your impulses a little further and challenge yourself to discover exactly what sounds you like and why. It can be an entertaining exercise to figure out exactly what your ear enjoys the most. You may find that you can’t really discover an answer, and for some an answer may come instantly and inspire you to explore something new. An excellent place to start on your journey of sound, and one of the pieces of media that I started with a few years ago, is Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lecture Series entitled The Unanswered Question. Bernstein tackles the history of classical music along with a discussion of why and how we make music and why Western music sounds the way it does. Hunt Library has copies, so check it out if you’re looking to absorb some knowledge.