Music Education

From Classical to Expirimental – Going Mainstream

This is the last part of a four-part series on the birth of avant-garde music. You can read this article alone or view part one here.

When we last left off, the modern experimental ethos had developed in classical spaces. But there’s still a missing connection. How do we go from this academic music to the experimental musicians of today? Well, the answer has to do with a few musicians who made the jump from one genre to another, but first, we need to talk about money.

Popular vs. “Art” Music

When academics and musicians talk about “classical music” they usually don’t use that term. Classical music exclusively refers to the music of like 1750-1800, which includes Mozart and Hayden. The term classical musicians use is “Art Music” which is a loaded term but the actual difference is in how these genres make money.

Popular music makes it’s money primarily through sale to the general public. Originally this meant record sales, nowadays it means streaming services and tours. So-called art music makes money indirectly, a very small portion of the communities income comes from selling concert tickets, substantially more comes from professorships, teaching music and gig work at weddings and funerals. Classical music was traditionally the only music that fit this description, but since the 60s jazz music has also taken on this business model in response to declining record sales.

For as long as popular music has been a thing, its musicians have received training from classical and jazz teachers, but this training has always been rather conservative. If you, like me, took music lessons as a child, you were likely taught to hear traditional pitches, read sheet music written in the Western convention, and play music on the typical starter instrument, the piano. A lot of people have some experience with this type of musical training, and while not all lead artists in pop can read music, basically all session musicians, non-celebrity producers and career touring musicians can. Traditionally, white musicians were classically trained, while black musicians were trained by jazz musicians, which has its own traditional and experimental contingents that I am wholly unqualified to speak on.

Classical training focuses entirely on the canonical account of Western music, only once a person is fully trained in an instrument will they be introduced to even the most conventional musicians we’ve discussed in this series. Experimental music was considered an elite subgenre, and one that most classical musicians still regard as pretentious, irrelevant and to blame for the death of modern classical.

Experimental Rock

In the 60s, jazz was getting experimental, and losing the interests of the mainstream. Having enjoyed 50 years as the most popular genre, jazz was losing ground to styles rooted in American folk music, such as rock, contemporary folk revival, soul/R&B and country. However, it wouldn’t be long before these genres began taking on ideas from the avant-garde as well. Now, if you excuse a meta comment, I consider myself at least somewhat knowledgeable about music, but in this context, I need to be very clear about my limitations. The music of white rock stars was not the only or even the primary avenue for the avant-garde to go mainstream. However, all my 12 years of musical training were done within the white church, so my knowledge of avant-garde jazz is functionally nothing. R&B and later hip-hop drew considerable inspiration from free jazz and experimental classical music, but I can’t pretend to speak with anything near the expertise on this transition as I can the transition from classical to rock.

So, taking experimental rock as our case study, how did this transition happen? Well, the easiest answer is that experimental musicians began to give music lessons to some future rock stars. The most obvious example of this is Yoko Ono, who gave some classical instruction to John Lennon, and introduced the Beatles to Fluxus, but there are some less well-known instances of this.

John Cage trained several up-and-coming musicians. This happened very directly with his student, confusingly named John Cale, who was a founding member of the Velvet Underground alongside Lou Reed. The VU have been talked to death by literally everyone, but needless to say, rock music would look extremely different today without them. Cale would also go on to mentor the mother of punk Patti Smith, who led a commercial boom for punk music, a style that was avant-garde only ten years prior.

Cale’s contemporaries in the New York minimalist movement are less well known but straddle the line between popular and classical music. You may be familiar with Terry Reilly or Steve Reich, who released early experiments in electronic minimalism, utilizing nascent synthesizer technology. My recommendations for their most important works include “In C” for Terry Reilly, and “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Phase Patterns,” for Reich.

Reich and Reilly would inspire, though not directly train, influential musician Brian Eno. Eno was originally a visual artist, but he made the jump to music in a similar fashion to Andy Warhol, who produced for the Velvet Underground. Several of his collaborators would cite him as a teacher, instructing the likes of David Bowie and the Talking Heads in the creative methods originally pioneered by Cage (with a ‘G’).

The Next Generation

After punk and new wave took off, bringing avant-garde sounds to a mainstream audience, a new generation of avant-garde musicians made similar collaborations with classical musicians. No Wave, a sound reacting against the commercialization of punk, was mentored by quasi-classical musician Glenn Branca, who led an electric guitar orchestra that used distortion, not as an embellishment to traditional chords, but as a full replacement for tonality. It was in this orchestra that the founding members of Sonic Youth met, and as I’ve covered again and again the members of Sonic Youth would influence artists from Madonna to Nirvana and Hole to experimental folk artist Cat Power whose music I will be covering very soon.

You might be starting to notice a pattern. A group of musicians rebel against the mainstream before being co-opted by popular music and reaching immense commercial success years later, leading a new group of musicians to collaborate with the avant-garde and bring new ideas to music. This pattern can be seen in movements from metal to industrial to hip-hop to electronic dance music. Once you notice the pattern, you start to see it everywhere, it’s the pattern John Cage articulated in his “Experimental Music” manifesto and it’s how Western music, which changed so slowly from 1650 to 1950 that most people can’t discern any genre distinctions whatsoever, has become the fast-paced, ever-changing landscape we know today.


A lot of people bemoan the death of classical music, rock ‘n roll, or jazz, but not a lot of people understand the history of these genre labels. All music will, one day, likely be reduced down to one of two labels: classical or folk. To say “I don’t like classical music” is an understandable, but slightly inaccurate statement, because the music you do like one day be sifted through, and the greatest musicians with the best stories and coolest lore will be canonized as “composers” who made “artwork’ and their music will be studied and performed by the classical nerds of tomorrow. So give some classical composers a chance, because the music you like has more in common with classical than you’d first expect.

By Delusional Melodrama

Former Dj and long-time contributor to the WKNC blog. Specializes in all music that sounds like a lawnmower swallowing a rock.