The term avant-garde is applied to music when it is considered "ahead of its time" by critics or fans, i.e., it contains unique or original elements, or it explores unusual fusions of different genres.
In a historical sense, some musicologists use the term "avant-garde music" for the radical compositions that succeeded the death of Anton Webern in 1945, while for others, this period is typically thought to begin with Wagner or Josquin des Prez.
Today the term may be used to refer to any other post-1945 tendency of modernist music not definable as experimental music, though sometimes including a type of experimental music characterized by the rejection of tonality.
Although some modernist music is also avant-garde, a distinction can be made between the two categories. Because the purpose of avant-garde music is necessarily political, social, and cultural critique, so that it challenges social and artistic values by provoking or goading audiences, composers such as Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, George Antheil, and Igor Stravinsky may reasonably be considered to have been avant-gardists in their early works (which were understood as provocative, whether or not the composers intended them that way), but the label is not really appropriate for their later music. Modernists of the post–World War II period, such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti, Witold Lutosławski, and Luciano Berio, never conceived their music for the purpose of goading an audience, and so cannot be classified as avant-garde. Composers such as John Cage and Harry Partch, on the contrary, remained avant-gardists throughout their creative careers.
Ethnomusicologist David Toop characterized the mid-1960s work of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson as "avant-garde pop", while The New York Times referred to the group as brief representations of avant-garde pop. In the early 1970s, art rock bands such as Roxy Music cited much of their music as being avant-garde. When lead singer, Bryan Ferry was seeking a lead guitarist he sent out an advertisement in Melody Maker which read "The perfect guitarist for avant-rock group".[this quote needs a citation]
- Paul Du Noyer (ed.), "Contemporary", in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music: From Rock, Pop, Jazz, Blues and Hip Hop to Classical, Folk, World and More (London: Flame Tree, 2003), p. 272. ISBN 1-904041-70-1
- Don Michael Randel, "Modernism", The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 9780674011632.
- Edward Lowinsky, "The Musical Avant-Garde of the Renaissance; or, the Peril and Profit of Foresight", in Music in the Culture of the Renaissance and Other Essays, edited and with an introduction by Bonie J. Blackburn with forewords by Howard Mayer Brown and Ellen T. Harris, 2 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989) 2:730–54, passim.
- Larry Sitsky, Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002): xiii–xiv. ISBN 0-313-29689-8.
- Toop, David (1995). Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. London: Serpent's Tail. p. 114. ISBN 9781852423827.
- Ames Carlin, Peter (March 25, 2001). "MUSIC; A Rock Utopian Still Chasing An American Dream".
- Griffiths, Paul. 1981. Modern Music: The Avant Garde since 1945. London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd.; New York: George Braziller. ISBN 0-8076-1018-6.