What Makes Glitch?

According to Wikipedia, Glitch is a term used to describe a genre of experimental electronic music that emerged in the mid to late 1990s. The origins of the glitch aesthetic can be traced back to Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises. But what makes good Glitch?

As defined by Wikipedia:

Glitch is a term used to describe a genre of experimental electronic music that emerged in the mid to late 1990s. The origins of the glitch aesthetic can be traced back to Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises, the basis of noise music. In a Computer Music Journal article published in 2000, composer and writer Kim Cascone used the term post-digital to describe various experimentations associated with the glitch aesthetic. Glitch is characterized by a preoccupation with the sonic artifacts that can result from malfunctioning digital technology, such as those produced by bugs, crashes, system errors, hardware noise, CD skipping, and digital distortion. Cascone considers glitch to be a sub-genre of electronica.

Production Techniques: Glitch is often produced on computers using modern digital production software to splice together small “cuts” (samples) of music from previously recorded works. These cuts are then integrated with the signature of glitch music: beats made up of glitches, clicks, scratches, and otherwise “erroneously” produced or sounding noise. These glitches are often very short, and are typically used in place of traditional percussion or instrumentation. Skipping CDs, scratched vinyl records, circuit bending, and other noise-like distortions figure prominently into the creation of rhythm and feeling in glitch; it is from the use of these digital artifacts that the genre derives its name. However, not all artists of the genre are working with erroneously produced sounds or are even using digital sounds.

Popular software for creating glitch includes trackers, Reaktor, Ableton Live, Reason, AudioMulch, Bidule, Super Collider, Usine, FLStudio, MAX/MSP, Pure Data, and ChucK. Circuit bending — the intentional short-circuiting of low power electronic devices to create new musical devices—also plays a significant role on the hardware end of glitch music and its creation.

Great. But what makes good Glitch? I’ve often pondered this question and think I’ve come up with a few characteristics of the genre.

  1. First, Glitch music has to have some balance of “randomness” or “chaos” and structure. It’s the tension between these two that give the song its listenable and deep quality. Something to be thought about, something difficult, and something that is not easily taken in by a single pass.
  2. Second, I think good Glitch music explores sonic possibilities, or rather, sonic IMpossibilities. If you listen to the works of Autechre and Aphex Twin, some of their glitchiest of tunes are interesting sonically because they use sounds that are not created by traditional musical instruments, and they explore speeds at which no human can play, even if they were created from a human instrument. Or, they create layers of sounds that are so out there and other-worldly that people would question the notion of the sounds being musical at all.
  3. Third, Glitch is not imitative. It does not try to mimic anything found in nature, but rather tries to break new ground by creating something completely new that you wouldn’t necessarily find in nature. I think this is why a lot of glitch artists turn to mechanic or machine sounds to create their music. It takes them further away from nature and more in the realm of the “man-made.” It’s not organic sound. It’s synthetic.
  4. Fourth, good glitch makes you think. Period. Perhaps that’s why us Americans refer to it as “Intelligent” Dance Music (or IDM). And while I know my brethren in the U.K. cringe at this very notion of terming any kind of music “Intelligent” (the argument as I see it stems from the fact that by labelling any one music “Intelligent” you automatically relegate all other music into the “non-intelligent” dogpile — something which I doubt was ever intended), I still think that you have to use what’s between your ears to fully appreciate glitch. I’m not saying any other music is any less intelligent or intellectual. But Glitch is not pop either. It’s not for the masses, and it’s not for those that want to immediately glean everything from one listen. It’s not background music.
  5. Finally, I think good Glitch uses the unexpected and surprising to capture or hold one’s attention. Whereas most music uses traditional hooks, such as filter openings, drum fills, or other crafty ways to keep a listener’s attention, I think Glitch tends to use more chance happenings and unexpected “free-for-alls” to keep you moving forward through the track. For example, a sudden switch from a wide-open reverb to a small space reverb, or a sudden jump in EQ. Or perhaps a major shift in tempo (as Autechre is fond of doing). All of these things seem to pay homage to the origins of the word Glitch: “erroneously” produced or sounding noise. The art of mistakes.

I would say if anyone has a further interest in the subject, they should definitely read up on the Art of Noises, a Futurist manifesto written by Luigi Russolo in 1913. A nice little summary can be found on Wikipedia. If Russolo were alive today, I think he’d be a fan of works by Autechre and Aphex Twin. I think he’d be supremely impressed at how we use computers as tools to create an infinite array of “noise-sounds” which we couldn’t create before. What I find very interesting is how so many sound designers work so hard to re-create sounds of traditional instruments. I think if Russolo were around he’d probably encourage them to forget about traditional instruments and instead focus on creating new experimental sounds that are unlike anything we’ve heard before. But perhaps that’s a thought for a future(ist) post.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

18 thoughts on “What Makes Glitch?”

  1. Good description.

    I think some glitch can be very hard for people to get “into”. I find that other people I know who are used to mainstream rock & pop find glitch almost offensive in that they can’t hear the patterns and assume it’s just random noise. Some of the glitch sounds make people think that the music is somehow broken and they find that unpleasant and in some cases antagonistic.

    For me personally, it was definitely an acquired listening taste. Like all genres, there’s still a lot of glitch I can’t stand to hear more than once 🙂

    1. I completely agree. Even though I fell in love with Glitch music the first time I heard it (and it still took me several passes before I truly appreciated it), there are still certain bands/songs that I just can’t listen to more than once. Though I have to say this happens more frequently with certain ambient music. Some songs are just WAAAAAY too slow for me to appreciate. I like movement and modulation in a song. Some ambient stuff just doesn’t sit well with me if it’s absent (or too ambient).

  2. I come from a different period and the word, “experimental,” means something different to me. I think of Harry Partch, John Cage, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, early Henry Cow, Elliot Sharp, The Residents…like that. I have only heard the Glitch music that you have on your site, but I have heard other music labeled experimental that doesn’t match what I expect to hear. That label sets me up to expect music that is atonal and/or arrhythmic.

    In your experience of experimental music, as it exists and is being played today, is there a genre title that may come closest to matching what my brain has become used to thinking of under the label of experimental?


    1. Douglas,

      In my own experience, I’ve found that “Experimental” is a very broad label. Probably one of the broadest out there. It seems that everything which is not in the “norm” or “mainstream” can be termed “Experimental” in some way, shape, or form. When I think of John Cage, I think more of “Minimalist” than anything else. But to sum up a person’s entire output in one word would be grossly oversimplifying. My best advice would be to use the wonder of the internet to aid you in finding similar artists to the ones you describe. Go to places like Soundcloud, CD Baby or even the ubiquitous YouTube to search on John Cage, Henry Cow, Elliot Sharp. All these services have ways in which you can type in a search or a “Sounds like. . . xxx” and they return results which display other artists that might come close to what you think about when “Experimental” comes to mind.

      The tough thing about thinking in terms of Genres is that everyone’s expectations can be different. They’re just labels. And while the artists hate labels with a vengeance (for the most part), marketers love them (because they can put the artists into a nice neat little category). The truth of the matter is that labels will always be insufficient in summing up the work of the individual. It’s a necessary evil of course because it’s in our nature to categorize and index everything. Makes it easier for our minds to handle the overwhelming amount of information. But if you’re trying to find what your mind defines as “Experimental” you’re going to have to do a lot of searching and keep open to the possibility of doing a lot of listening along the way. Then there’s the problem of marketers wrongly categorizing artists, or the fact that new categories pop up all the time. The internet is just starting to catch up with the idea of cross-indexing, tagging, mashups, etc. So it’s a very slippery slope indeed. I could go on. . .

      But start with some of the places I list above, and maybe others have some suggestions for you as well.

      I hope that helps.

      I hope that helps.

  3. Yes, labels…when we talk about music or any art form, we use cognitive concepts to frame activity and expression whose origin may be right-brain or pre-verbal. One of my goals as a musician has been to move the origin of my music farther back in my nervous system, if you will, away from my fore-brain and the structure that lives there. Or at least to let undifferentiated, nonlinear (reptilian?) experience have equal sway in what I create. This searching for the nonlinear is what leads me to experimental music.

    Using programs like Record, which are sequential and linear in nature, may seem antithetical to a search for the nonlinear and undifferentiated, but really, that’s kind of the fun, to use structure to produce non-structure, or to create an edifice and then tear off its layers to reveal its essential nothingness.

    I’m curious – with your conceptual and systemic mind, do you engage in other creative forms?


    1. Douglas,
      It’s funny you should ask. I actually work in graphics as well, though I’ve let it lapse a little too much. My other site is http://www.chainstyle.com where you can see the work I do in Photoshop. I’ve always thought of myself as a creative individual more than a logical individual. But my job requires a lot of systematic thinking: creating user steps and procedures to document software processes. I think the older I get, the more I see the balance between left and right brain. The realization that you can create works of art and beaty using mathematical algorithms and coding has always been a fascinating subject. But where earlier in my life I saw the artistic process as a hands-on interaction between the person and the canvas and/or the page, I now see that it can be intertwined with the computer and I’ve never looked back. Whether it be Photoshop, web design, creating fractals, music. I think it’s all part of one of the greatest journeys of my life.

      And that’s how I truly feel. I’m just lucky that I can incorporate this into my free time and my work.

      As a sidenote, I’ll probably be writing a few more tutorials on randomization and automation in Reason/Record in the coming months. So stay tuned. I think that would definitely be something that will appeal to your “sensibility” — the random and chaotic within the confines of the linear structure of Reason/Record.

      All my best!

    1. Douglas,
      if you like Soundcloud, then you might also like Soundclick. There are a ton of interesting musicians out there just trying to carve their own space and be heard. And though I don’t have as much time as I would like to listen to other music, I would still rather support the independant artist. I’ve pretty much given up on the regular bricks and mortar music store.
      All my best. 🙂

  4. My goodness! You are an amazingly helpful as well as talented fellow.

    I will certainly stay tuned. I have been devouring all things Record and Reason as I move from wide-eyed Wow! to a more satisfied “aahhh” as I begin to be able to produce the sounds I want using Record. Your tutorials have been quite helpful.

    Here’s the link to what I have so far on SoundCloud: http://soundcloud.com/vonaxenbourg/sets/did-you-stub-your-toe

    I have some work on deviantArt you might enjoy: http://vonaxenbourg.deviantart.com/gallery/

    Seems we have similar interests. Right brain/left brain – thank heavens for the corpus callosum!

    1. Thanks Douglas. I’m glad you’re enjoying the tutorials. Hopefully I can throw a few tidbits out there that make sense and are helpful. That’s the point after all. If you’re interested in some of my photoshop artwork, I also run http://www.chainstyle.com — stay tuned. I have a few more articles waiting to be posted this week. And if you use anything I’ve created in your own work, please let me know. I’m always interested to see what people come up with.

      All my best. And happy Reasoning!

  5. Excellent little article! I’m attempting to move more into glitch myself as I do find it incredibly interesting and VERY VERY effective in even minimal ambient music and usage. My favorite musician right now (and fave new musician of 02009 is Adverb (the “Monument EP” is the best, I think). You can find his music on the Electronica.ru label (www.electronicalabel.ru).


    1. Thanks Joe! I’ll have to check him out. I always love the blend of ambient and glitch. I think it leaves one open to a lot of interesting possibilities and randomness. That just sits well with me. 🙂 I’ll be posting some articles in the future when I have time about how to make some random effects in Reason/Record. Just have to work my head around some of the routings. Also, when Peff has his new Reason 4 PowerTools book out, I’m sure it will have a lot of interesting possibilities for those of us that like Glitch.

      All my best!

  6. I am thrilled to find a place where people are discussing this subject. I found Glitch about a year ago. Now, did anyone ever have the feeling that they imagined music that they wanted to write and even listen to? Well I kept imagining this music that I could only ever imagine in my head which I called glitch, then I searched the word on the net and an explosion occurred. At last!!!!!! I found music that was not just about a melodic or rhythmic pattern that moved me emotionally, but a music that used the frequency range that could – make you feel sick, have pin-like sensations in very strange places on and in the body, um….headaches ha and not because of volume lol.

    Now I am certainly not saying that I love pain, but I will say that for me, glitch music does exactly what most music only attempts, and I enjoy a lot of music of all genres.

    Actually Im not going to go on any more!!! Glitch is a truly exciting voice that reaches out, takes hold of you and says “this will wake you up again!!!” I feel like a new born human. With new ears, and a new being musically.

    1. Andrew,
      Glitch is such an interesting subject and musical genre that I also fell in love with it. It’s not so much about pain for me, but about found sounds, interesting tempo changes, samples that can make you shudder and fill you up with interesting emotions. In a word, it’s Glitch! Experimental fun. Glad there are others out there who enjoy it as much as I do. 😉

  7. I think you should read the Kim Cascone article, if you have not so. I think the popular term Glitch is misleading and Post-digital captures the stylistic devices much better. Yes, glitch is all about the non natural and computer generated and glitch artists favor intricate rhythms, but I think this does not delineate it enough from other styles.

    What makes glitch unique is the effort to go beyond the circuits and discover the sounds hidden in unforeseen connections by breaking things, hence “post-digital”, as in what lies beyond the electronics. Glitch explores the little nuances of sounds taken for granted, like the click a sine tone makes when you don’t start it at zero phase. It strips the sounds of their familiar tones and brings forth the glitches hidden within. A glitch artist has an incredible eye for detail in finding these small errors, a large talent for sonic craftsmanship to isolate them and true artistry to place these tiny fragments in musical contexts.

    While Aphex Twin and Autechre are great artists with glitch elements in their music, I would not consider them the best examples. Turn to the Raster Norton Label, listen to Alva Noto and especially Ryoji Ikeda, who not only plays with the glitches in sine tones and white noise, but the glitches produced by your own perception and hearing mechanism. Listen to Oval, who printed the CD label on the wrong side, making the CD skip and calling it music. Listen to Xenakis’ “Concret Ph” for some amazing analog granular synthesis, as well as Curtis Roads, Barry Truax or Fennesz. Listen to “Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records” by Jan Jelinek for an excellent example of vinyl glitch cup & paste…

    Im just adding to what I think is missing to this article. This is no attack in any way, just trying to fill the gaps.

    1. @Tim,
      I completely welcome the input. Many of these artists I haven’t heard about before you mentioned them. And that is always welcome and up for discussion. I agree that sometimes “Glitch” is misrepresented, and you could write a whole dissertation on what makes glitch. Indeed, I’m sure one (or more) have been written on the subject. For what it’s worth, I think my own tastes aren’t completely “Glitch” as you describe them here. I lean more towards “Glitch” or “IDM” mixed with a degree of traditional music structures. I think it’s in the balance of “chaos” and “order” that makes music of this nature so intriguing for me. It’s the merging of the traditional with the experimental that seems to always catch my ear.

      So thanks for opening some new doors for my reading and listening pleasure. Very much appreciated!


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