What Is Minimalism In Music? A Complete Guide

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The movement toward minimalism in music essentially began during the 1960s, alongside the minimalist movement in art. Although some composers experimented with minimalism in music before the mid-20th century, the minimalist movement in both art and music flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.

This article will examine the movement toward minimalism in music during the 20th century music era and explore how music expresses its influence today.

We’ll explore the history of minimalism in music, various musical theories and stylistic elements developed at the time, and some critical minimalist composers. We hope you’ll leave with a new understanding and appreciation of the innovative dynamics and expansion of musical definitions the minimalist music movement contributed to the music world.

When was the Minimalism Era?

Minimalism in music gained a firm foothold in music history during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

After the advent of the electric guitar raised the noise threshold and the ability of players to play more notes faster during the new contemporary period in the 1950s, the art world, in general, underwent a period of contrast and embraced reductive expressionism during this period.

The experimental techniques from the musical periods preceding the minimalist era helped spur composers to push the limits of the definition of music to create a whole new genre of music by definition.

Some of the preceding musical eras that helped promote minimalism in music include the following:

  • Modernism (1890-1975)
  • Impressionism (1890-1930)
  • Expressionism (1900-1930)
  • Neoclassicism (1920-1975)
  • Serialism (1920-1975)
  • Contemporary (1950-current)

Style of Minimalism

Michael Nyman may have first used the term “Minimalist” in The Spectator in 1968.

Nyman is an English pianist, librettist, musicologist, and composer of minimalist music upon whose work the Michael Nyman band was founded in 1976.

Nyman claimed to have found “a recipe for the successful minimal music happening from the entertainment presented by Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts).” (Nyman 1968, 519.)

However, self-proclaimed minimalist composer Tom Johnson claims to have been the first to use the term ‘minimalism’ in reference to music as music critic for The Village Voice.

Johnson describes minimalism as “any music that works with minimal materials“.

  • pieces that use only a few notes
  • pieces that use only a few words of text
  • pieces written for minimal instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses
  • pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time.
  • pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams.
  • pieces that move in endless circles.
  • pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound.
  • pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another.
  • pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D.
  • pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.”

Today, minimalism in music is commonly recognized as a form of art music that limits the number of musical instruments in a composition or replaces traditional instrumentation with non-instrument sources as musical expressions.

Minimalist music typically features repetitive patterns, phrases, or beats, extended droning sounds, and consonant harmonies.

New Musical Forms

The minimalist movement introduced new elements and forms of music, some of which remain in vogue today.

The minimalist approach to music is marked by a non-narrative system that calls the listener to focus on the process or phases of the musical composition or score and promotes active listening rather than serving as a mere backdrop for other activities.

Two of these new musical reflections include phase music and process music.

Phase Music

Phase music is essentially considered a type of minimalist music, although some puritans consider this a category of its own.

In phase music, the defining feature is the play between unison and contrast of two musical instruments playing together but not necessarily in tandem.

The two instruments may begin playing in tempo together, but they gradually shift tempos until one plays after the other, creating a doubling or echo effect.

Eventually, the two instruments meet at the same tempo again, at which time they are again playing in sync with each other.

Steve Reich – ‘Piano Phase’

Composer Steve Reich popularized phase music by looping the same phrase on different playback devices simultaneously, creating what is known as tape music or electroacoustic phase music in 1964.

Soon after, around 1967, Reich and other composers began writing phase music for instruments, creating instrumental phase music.

Process Music

Process music is widely defined as music that arises from a process, whether audible or not.

The musical process can be defined as “a highly complex dynamic phenomenon involving audible structures that evolve in the course of the musical performance … 2nd order audible developments, i.e., audible developments within audible developments.” (Seibt, Johanna, 2004)

Process compositions often use symbols in notation that were not previously considered musical notation, such as plus, minus, and equal signs.

These symbols indicate unspecified transformations not delineated by the composer.

Instead, those sounds are left to the performers’ interpretation, leaving them open to interpretation and endlessly changeable.

David Lang – ‘Just (After Song of Songs)’

Reich also came up with the term “process music” in his 1968 manifesto, “Music as a Gradual Process.”

While Reich wanted listeners to hear the process throughout his music, other composers, like John Cage and David Lang, experimented with non-auditory compositional techniques.

Silence in The Minimalist Era

In contrast to the musical periods preceding it, the minimalist era did not emphasize any scale patterns.

Instead, minimalist music focused on improvisation, non-instrumental sounds, non-choreographed sounds, or repetitive loops that followed a pattern but not necessarily a scale.

Minimalist music often leaves out any tonic or center key, favoring instead a kind of quiet chaos interpreted as a type of unstructured order.

Silence plays an essential part in minimalism music, building on the adage, “Music is not in the notes but in the silence between.”

Composers of the minimalist era often credit John Cage’s 1952 piece 4’33” as the pioneering work for the minimalist age, although it was created before the movement gained momentum.

John Cage – ‘4’33”

The song contains three movements lasting a combined total of four minutes 33 seconds.

The composition has no notes and is completely silent.

Instead, the music lies in the sounds made by the audience during each movement.

This innovative work broke all the previous definitions of music and blasted the structures that had contained compositions up until then. 

Important Minimalism Era Composers

Composers of minimalist music broke down barriers that had previously defined music for all of music history.

Primarily seated in the United States and the United Kingdom, minimalist composers used new technologies to change how we perceive natural and man-made sounds.

The following composers are considered the most influential of the time:

  • Steve Reich (1936 – current)
  • Philip Glass (1937 – current)
  • Terry Riley (1935 – current)
  • La Monte Young (1935 – current)
  • Michael Nyman (1944 – current)
  • Tom Johnson (1939 – current)
  • John Cage (1912 -1992)
  • John Lewis (1920 -2001)

Instrumentation

Many instruments used in minimalist music have been used for centuries and are still used today.

Standard minimalist instruments include organ, wind instruments, string quartets, and for some composers, entire traditional orchestras.

Modern-era instruments like saxophones, mallets, and various percussion instruments are often used in minimalist compositions.

Natural sounds like rivers, rain, thunder, wind, and insect are sometimes employed as instruments.

Man-made sounds from automobiles, trains, factories, machinery, and other synthetic sounds are often used as a basis for or complement minimalist works.

Digital effects are often used to change the sound of instruments or effects.

Adding reverb, chorus, or wave distortion was common, as was using skipping or looping to create a complete work.

Summary

Minimalism has played an important part in music history.

Its influence is still heard today in electronic dance music, rap and hip-hop beats and loops, and experimental music of the 21st century.

Listeners can hear minimalism’s influence in tracks from the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, and it has helped humans think of the sounds of nature as more musical.

And minimalism is the basis for modern art forms like ASMR and meditation music.

We hope that you’ve gained a new appreciation for minimalism in music and that you’ve enjoyed learning about minimal music’s history and continuing impact on music today.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.