The phrase alternative music has been around for many years now. It’s hard to pin down an exact definition of the term, mainly because it has meant many different things since it was first used.
For example, in the early 2000s, alternative music referred to many different things. It was used to describe big-label rock groups, folk-pop, and even Christian rock music.
Around 2007 and the rise of indie music, alternative was stretched to include indie bands like Arcade Fire and late-career Panic! at the Disco and My Chemical Romance.
Loosely understood, alternative music is an attempt to describe any music that doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream sound of a given era.
And now that streaming services have become increasingly popular, the average listener has access to more music than ever, and much of it stands outside of current trends and doesn’t have a prayer of making the charts.
It’s like trying to lump all animated movies into a single genre. In reality, animated movies can be about anything, and can be created in just about any style you can think of.
So to try and find a better definition of what alternative means today, we’ve taken a look at typical characteristics of alternative music, which you’ll find listed below.
Feel free to add any qualities that you’ve noticed in alternative music that we may have missed.
In each country and culture, there’s a general agreement as to what constitutes high-quality vocals.
For the United States, that concept has been stagnant for about the last 40 years or so. We associate impressive singing with natural vibrato, some mild improvisation around a central melody, and a wide vocal register.
But there are many musical artists who refuse to conform to this standard, whatever it happens to be at the time.
A good example of this trend is the 2000s, when the genre of freak folk became increasingly popular.
Some examples of freak folk groups are Tune-Yards and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. Diane Cluck has also been known to make use of irregular vocal techniques in much of her music.
Even if the music that these groups were producing wasn’t that strange or unconventional, the unique vocals alone would force their music into the category of alternative.
In fact, it would be difficult to imagine an artist with an unusual vocal style every becoming popular in the mainstream. Such an artist would essentially be forever doomed to be labeled as alternative.
Inventive Musical Structure
Alternative music can also be defined partially by its musical structure.
Much of mainstream music has made use of the same song basic song structure for the past 50 years or so.
This structure tends to be a variation of Verse, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Chorus. These specific elements may be moved around or reordered slightly, but this simple formula can be applied to pop hits from the 1950s all the way up to today.
And since the alternative music playbook is “Take whatever they do and do the opposite,” the genre can also be marked based on the use of atypical song structure.
For an example, let’s turn to folk singer and composer Joanna Newsom. Her 2006 album Ys may, in fact, be a modern masterpiece.
But if you’re looking for a verse or a chorus anywhere on the record, you will be sorely disappointed.
From lyrics to instrumentation, these songs flow from one idea to the next, one image to the next, one melody to the next, each lasting as little as just a few seconds.
This is another factor that would make it difficult for a song or an artist to enter the mainstream.
One of the things people like most about pop music is that it’s repetitive. It’s easy to remember the words and it’s easy to remember the melody. It’s easier for someone to make a connection with a song this way.
Music with an unusual or innovative structure is generally more difficult to recall later on. You may remember a specific musical tone but not the melodies or lyrics themselves.
MGMT is a pop-rock (or maybe even art-rock) group that released its debut album, Oracular Spectacular, back in 2007.
While on a press junket to promote their 2010 album, Congratulations, they remarked that they had an incredibly difficult time putting a 12-minute long song on the album.
This is partially because they’d already seen mainstream success and had been signed to a major label. And a major label sees little to no practical value in a song longer than 6 minutes.
A 12-minute track can’t be played on the radio, and it may discourage listeners from finishing the album at all.
But the world of alternative music is more than happy to indulge in lengthy tracks.
One of my personal favorite alternative tracks with a long runtime is Halifax by Hampton Grease Band.
It’s over 19 minutes long, and the lyrics focus solely on facts about Halifax, Canada, including its roads, bridges, and tourist attractions.
There’s just no way for something so creative and unconventional to be classified as anything other than alternative.
Mystery Instruments and Sounds
Popular music follows trends when it comes to what instruments are used to create music.
Prior to 1940, these instruments tended to be acoustic band instruments, almost without exception.
Then in the 1950s and 1960s, the Western World saw the rise of the electric guitar. Popular music groups got smaller, having just 3 or 4 members.
Now, almost 100% of instrumentals for popular songs are created via electronic or fully digital instruments.
And this trend isn’t inherently negative, either. And it doesn’t mean that modern-day producers and composers are lazy or unoriginal.
But alternative musicians tend to go out of their way to find and use instruments and sounds that are unique.
As a listener, try to think of music you enjoy that contains sounds that you don’t recognize.
Dollars to donuts, that music can be considered alternative.
A good example of using unusual instruments is the early recordings of Arcade Fire. Their first record contained a wide range of obscure instruments, from a hurdy-gurdy to a Dobro resonator guitar.
Feel free to let us know your thoughts on the subject. After all, art is wide open to interpretation.
If you’re interested in how jazz has played a part in alternative music, check out this guide on how to start listening to jazz without getting bored to death.