In many ways, No Wave is not a clearly definable musical genre with consistent features. Various groups drew on such disparate styles as funk, jazz, blues, punk rock, avant garde, and experimental. There are, however, some elements common to most No Wave music, such as abrasive atonal sounds, repetitive driving rhythms, and a tendency to emphasize musical texture over melody - typical of the early downtown music of La Monte Young. No Wave lyrics often focused on nihilism and confrontation.
No Wave is often better defined in terms of the artistic environment in which it thrived (the downtown scene of minimal art) and the character of performances typical to its context. No Wave performances drew heavily on performance art and as a result were often examples of a highly theatrical minimalism in their renditions. In 1978 a series of punk rock influenced loud noise music was held at New York’s Artists’ Space that led to the Brian Eno-produced recording No New York. This recording was the first attempt to define the no wave sound, documenting The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars and DNA.
The Noise Fest was an influential festival of art noise music curated by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth at the New York City art space White Columns in June 1981. Sonic Youth made their first live appearances at this show. Each night three to five acts performed, including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffrey Lohn, Dog Eat Dog, Built on Guilt, Rudolph Grey, the Avant Squares, Mofungo, Red Decade, Robin Crutchfield's Dark Day, Ad Hoc Rock, Smoking Section, Chinese Puzzle, Avoidance Behaviour, and Sonic Youth.
No Wave had a notable influence on noise and industrial bands who formed after, like Big Black, Lev Six, Helmet, and Live Skull. The Theoretical Girls heavily influenced early Sonic Youth, who then emerged from this scene by creating music that eventually reached mass audiences and critical acclaim. Also for new bands like Liars, Ex Models, Neptune, Erase Errata the influence of the No Wave scene was important.
Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, wrote:
No Wave music inspired the Speed Trials noise rock series organized by Live Skull members in May 1983 at White Columns with the music of The Fall, Beastie Boys, Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Elliot Sharp, Swans and Arto Lindsay. This was followed by the after-hours Speed Club that was fleetingly established at ABC No Rio.
In 2004 Scott Crary made a documentary, Kill Your Idols about the No wave scene. In 2008, three books on the No Wave scene were published: Soul Jazz's New York Noise, Marc Masters' No Wave, and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's ''No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980.