Avant Garde Music: Definition, Style & Artists

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  • 0:02 Avant Garde
  • 0:59 Serialism
  • 1:44 Avant Garde Composers
  • 3:30 Future of Avant Garde
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Avant garde music pushes the boundaries of what is considered music. In this lesson, we will learn more about avant garde music, including some of the different types and the composers who write it.

Avant Garde

It's 1952 and you are very excited to attend a concert of new music. First there are some pieces by Stravinsky and Milhaud. They are lovely works. Next on the program is something called 4'33'' by John Cage. Curious, you pay close attention. To your utter surprise, no one plays a note. The entire piece is silence. The audience is outraged. Some even boo. How could this be music? Welcome to the world of the avant garde!

Avant garde is French for 'advance guard' or 'vanguard.' Avant garde music is on the cutting edge and challenges expectations. The term is typically used to describe the musical styles that evolved after 1945, sometimes referred to as post-World War II music. There are numerous branches of the avant garde movement. We will look at the most prominent ones.


Avant garde was originally used to describe serialism, also known as tone-row, 12-tone, or dodecaphonic music, which is music that treats all twelve notes of the scale as having equal importance and assigns each of them a place in a row of notes. This row becomes the foundation for all melodic and harmonic development in the piece. An early and influential advocate of serialism was Arnold Schönberg. His students Anton Webern and Alban Berg were also important dodecaphonic composers. Their innovations carried into the second half of the 20th century through composers such as Milton Babbit and Pierre Boulez.

Avant Garde Composers

The American composer John Cage was a pioneer of aleatoric music and prepared piano, among other things. Aleatoric music uses the element of chance as part of the composition. For example, the performer may need to roll a die to determine which section will be played next. Prepared piano is a piano that has been altered by inserting objects such a screws, nails, and pieces of wood into the soundboard or between the strings to affect the sound. This gives the piano a percussive, exotic timbre. Composer George Crumb continues to experiment with prepared piano today.

Musique concrète, another major creative movement of the avant garde, is a type of electronic music that uses recorded sounds. These sounds are manipulated and changed with filters, tape loops, splicing, and other sound recording techniques. French composer Pierre Schaeffer's experiments with sounds on magnetic tape shortly after World War II became the earliest examples of musique concrète. Poème électronique by Edgard Varèse, performed by 400 loudspeakers, is a famous example of this genre.

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