The scene the term describes began in 1960, when Yoko Ono, one of the early Fluxus artists, opened her loft at 112 Chambers Street, in a part of Lower Manhattan later named Tribeca, to be used as a performance space for a series curated by La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield. Prior to this, most classical music performances in New York City occurred "uptown" around the areas that the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center and Columbia University would soon occupy. Ono's gesture led to a new performance tradition of informal performances in nontraditional venues such as lofts and converted industrial spaces, involving music much more experimental than that of the more conventional modern classical series Uptown. Spaces in Manhattan that supported Downtown music from the 1960s on included the Judson Memorial Church, The Kitchen, Experimental Intermedia, Roulette, the Knitting Factory, Dance Theater Workshop, Tonic, the Gas Station, the Paula Cooper Gallery, and others. Brooklyn Academy of Music has also shown a predilection for composers from the Downtown scene.
Downtown music is not distinguished by any particular principle, but rather by what it does not do: it does not confine itself to the ensembles, performance tradition, and musical rhetoric of European classical music, nor to the commercially defined conventions of pop music. The only thing that all Downtown music might be said to have in common is that, at least at the time of its original appearance, it was too bizarre – by dint of excessive length, stasis, simplicity, extemporaneity, consonance, noisiness, pop influence, vernacular reference, or other purported infraction – to have been considered "serious" modern music by proponents of "uptown" music. Another generalization one could point to is an embrace of the creative attitudes of John Cage, though this is not universal; Zorn in particular has downplayed his influence. Some Downtown music, particularly that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Morton Feldman, has subsequently become widely acknowledged within the more mainstream history of music.
More than a continuous scene, Downtown music has resembled a battlefield on which, from time to time, various groups have reigned ascendant. In chronological order of dominance, the following movements have been prominent Downtown:
- Conceptualism – starting with the Fluxus artists, who made pieces from brief instructions ("the short form") or concepts. For instance, La Monte Young's "Draw a straight line and follow it"; Robert Watts' Trace, in which the musicians set fire to the music on their music stands; Yoko Ono's Wall Piece, in which performers bang their heads against the wall; or Nam June Paik's classic "Creep into the vagina of a living whale".
- Minimalism – a style of music that began with the repetition of short motifs, sometimes going out of phase due to slight differences of speed, and crescendoed into a movement of simple diatonic music of clearly defined linear processes. Steve Reich and Philip Glass became the public face of the movement, but the original minimalists (La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock) were less characterized by their music's prettiness and accessibility than by its tremendous length, volume, and attention-challenging stasis.
- Performance art – starting with the enigmatic solo text/music pieces of Laurie Anderson, which often made innovative (even subversive) use of electronic technology, many Downtown artists developed an often humorous or thought-provoking style of solo performance with conceptualist overtones. This scene coexisted with minimalism, and due to the dearth of funding opportunities for Downtown composers, many of them still pursue genres of solo performance.
- Art rock or experimental rock – this is a term with several different meanings, depending on one's milieu, but two are most relevant to Downtown music: 1. originally, music made by visual artists, presumably musical amateurs, often tending toward surreal theater, as in the early performances of Glenn Branca and Jeffrey Lohn; and 2. subsequent to Rhys Chatham's influence, a transferral of minimalism to "rock" instruments, resulting in static pieces played on electric guitars, generally with a backbeat. Groups like DNA, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and the Swans arose from this (and the no wave) movement.
- Free improvisation – originating with Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, this scene took over Downtown in the early 1980s, under the leadership of John Zorn and Elliott Sharp. This music, celebrating extemporaneity, flourished in a city in which rehearsal space was expensive and difficult to come by, and provided an outlet for many jazz-trained/-centered musicians tired of jazz performance conventions.
- Postminimalism – a style of music based on a steady beat and diatonic harmony, less linear or obvious than minimalism but taking over its ensemble concept of amplified chamber groups. Postminimalism was more a far-flung national movement than anything specific to Manhattan, but William Duckworth and Elodie Lauten are examples of New York-based postminimalists.
- Totalism – another style emerging from minimalism but taking it in the direction of rhythmic complexity and rock-inspired beat momentum. Postminimalism and totalism were both bolstered by the emergence, starting in 1987, of the Bang on a Can festival, curated by Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon.
The above list of movements and idioms is far from exhaustive – in particular, it omits the continuous history of electronics in Downtown music, which have tended toward process-oriented and interactive music rather than fixed compositions. The history of sound installations should be taken into account, along with the more recent advent of DJ-ing as an art form. Likewise, despite its origin in New York musical politics, "Downtown" music is not solely specific to Manhattan; many major cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, even Birmingham, Alabama have alternative, Downtown music scenes. One could say that, if, when a composer gets played in New York City, it's likely to be at a Downtown space, then they can be called a Downtown composer, regardless of primary residence.
There is a considerable overlap between Downtown music and what is more generally called experimental music, especially as that term was defined at length by composer Michael Nyman in his influential book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Nyman opposes the term to avant-garde, as generally being American/British versus Continental, experimental music being more open to process, surprises, and accidents and less focused on the artistic personality. In this respect, as a general descriptive, and without reference to any particular scene, experimental and Downtown have sometimes been used synonymously. Another, even more coextensive term is new music, which took on currency following the "New Music New York" festival presented by The Kitchen in 1979, which visibly showcased the music referred to as Downtown; the term remained in widespread use during the years of the New Music America festival (1979–1990). Due to its obvious and inconvenient applicability to many types of music, use of "new music" as describing a specific type of contemporary composition has fallen off in recent years.
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, p. 155; Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, p. xiii; Kyle Gann, "The Part That Doesn't Fit Is Me" (interview with Yoko Ono), The Village Voice, August 11, 1992 (Vol. XXXVII No. 32, pp. 69, 82)
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, p. 13
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, p. 11; Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 154–155, 174–176
- Tom Johnson, "New Music: A Progress Report", The Village Voice, January 3, 1974, reprinted in Johnson 1989; Tom Johnson, "Takehisa Kosugi Happens Again", The Village Voice, March 28, 1977, reprinted in Johnson 1989
- Johnson 1989, Introduction.
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 203–206; Kyle Gann, "Minimal Music, Maximal Impact: Minimalism As It Was"; Kyle Gann, "Minimalism Isn't Pretty", The Village Voice, April 28, 1998 (Vol. XLIII No. 17, pp. 141, 145)
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 294–295, 381
- Duckworth 1995, pp. 425–427.
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 298–303; Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 42–49; Kyle Gann, "Harps from Heaven" (interview with Glenn Branca), The Village Voice, November 22, 1994 (Vol. XXXIX No. 47, pp. 49, 54, 58)
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 13–14
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 325–327; Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 13–14; Kyle Gann, "Minimal Music, Maximal Impact: Minimalism's Immediate Legacy: Postminimalism" Archived June 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, pp. 355–356; Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, pp. 13–14, 127–129; Kyle Gann, "Minimal Music, Maximal Impact: Minimalism Gets Complex: Totalism Archived 2007-02-25 at the Wayback Machine; Kyle Gann, "Tyrannize Me", The VIllage Voice, March 29, 1994 (Vol. XXXIX No. 13, p. 86)
- Edward Rothstein, "Minimalism Pumped Up to the Max", New York Times, July 18, 1993
- Kyle Gann, "After Ugly Music", The Village Voice, June 1, 1993 (Vol. XXXVIII No. 22, p. 81)
- Kyle Gann, Music Downtown, p. 5
- Nyman 1974, p. [page needed].
- Duckworth, William (1995). Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Composers. Schirmer. ISBN 0-02-870823-7.
- Gann, Kyle, American Music in the Twentieth Century, 1997, Schirmer ISBN 0-02-864655-X
- Gann, Kyle, Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, 2006, University of California Press ISBN 0-520-22982-7
- Johnson, Tom (1989). The Voice of New Music. Het Apollohuis. ISBN 90-71638-09-X.
- Nyman, Michael (1974). Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Studio Vista. ISBN 0-289-70182-1. Reprinted 1999 by Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-65383-5
- Cagne, Cole and Caras, Tracy, Soundpieces: Interviews With American Composers, 1982, Scarecrow Press ISBN 0-8108-1474-9