Minimalist Music – Learn the Joys of This Unique Style

Minimalist music is a relatively young movement in music that is just like the term sounds-minimal instruments, repetitive harmonies, and simple sounds.  Let’s see what defines minimalist music and where it originates from.

Minimalism has reached almost every aspect of life-from wardrobes and belongings to even music.  Minimalist music is a newer style of music defined by few instruments, repetitive melodies, and constant harmony.  From electronic to piano, minimalist music can help people study, relax, and even sleep.

You’ve heard of minimalist people, wardrobes, and even houses-but did you know there’s minimalist music?  What comes to mind when you hear the term minimalist music?

What Is Minimalist Music?

Minimalist music is a type that is defined by minimal materials, repetitive patterns, constant harmony, and steady drones.  It came about in the United States in the early 1960s and was started as an experiment, known as the New York Hypnotic School.  It’s just like what you would expect from the minimalist practice: simple and uncluttered.

Minimalist music embraces simplicity, slowly telling a story as it unfolds through subtle, harmonious changes. Listeners can fully submerge into the experience and feel the music. It’s clean, crisp, and precise.

Playing the piano - Minimalist Music - Gone Minimal
Playing the piano

Characteristics and Key Features of Minimalist Music

Even though it began as a movement in classical music, minimalism has spread throughout the music community to include jazz, pop, and even film soundtracks.  It has evolved over the last 60 years taking on more interest and style, almost taking on a maximalist style compared to the early days of this movement.  There are some characteristics and key features of minimalist music that can be heard across the genres:

  • Chords played with single notes rather than together
  • Repeated notes and melodies
  • Gradual changes in melody and rhythm
  • Simplified and repeated individual patterns
  • Minimal embellishment
  • Structure in repetition
  • Pulsing or hypnotic effect
  • Minimal musical instruments and materials

Types of Minimalist Music

There are several different types of minimalist music, from classical to pop, and in recent times this has even gone so far to affect popular and club music.  Let’s talk about some of these in a bit more detail.

  • Minimalist House Music – Minimal house music, also known as buftech or microhouse, has been around since around 1993.  It is a mix of techno, house, and of course minimalism.  This style is funky, repetitive, groovy, and focused on thumps from the kick drum and soft crashes of the hi-hat cymbals.  Much of this music is produced synthetically through electronic instruments by DJs but is still great for dancing.
  • Minimalist Electronic Music – Minimalist electronic music, or minimal techno, originated in Detroit in the 1990s.  Similar to microhouse, this style of music mostly consists of drums, bass, and funky grooves, as described by Robert Hood who was an early producer of this genre.  It is also produced through electronic methods with a DJ running the music and sound.  This style is often heard in clubs as well as popular music. 
  • Minimalist Piano Music – Minimalist piano music, you could say, has been around for a few centuries.  It is much like solo piano pieces, but defined by patterns and harmony.  It can consist of a single piano, a couple of pianos, and perhaps a violin or other singular instrument.  This style is great for studying or relaxation and sleep as it is also repetitive and simple.
Book of music - Minimalist Music - Gone Minimal
Book of music

Composers Known for Minimalist Music

There are many composers who are known for their minimalistic style in the creation of their music.  From classical and piano to electronic dance and house, let’s look at some minimalist music composers and how they define minimalist music:

  • Philip Glass is an American composer known as a father of modern minimalism.  He has written numerous pieces for orchestra, piano, and film.  From his 1982 Glassworks collection, “Opening” is a perfect example of his minimalist style as well as being contemplative and graceful.
  • Terry Riley is an American composer who is known for his composition, In C.  This piece was composed in 1964 and is an African-inspired piece that has 53 short musical phrases that can be played by several different musicians on different instruments.  It consists of some of the same melodies and beats and due to its length would be great for studying, relaxing, or sleep!
  • Steve Reich is another American composer who in his 1988 composition Different Trains combined only a string quartet and recorded human voices in order to produce melodies.  He introduced the idea of phrasing, or using different tempos and different instruments playing the same song or part of a song.  Different Trains is a reflection of how America and Europe train journeys contrasted during World War II.  It is an upbeat piece that sounds remarkably like a train on the tracks, just through instruments.  This piece would be great for a workout, studying, or just to get you going in the morning!
  • Ludovico Einaudi is an Italian pianist and composer who stumbled across the works of minimalist composers of America in the early 2000s.  His piano composition “I Giorni” (2006) may seem simple and understated, however it is beautifully and powerfully reflective.  It is a relaxing and soothing piece that would be perfect for meditation, sleep, or anytime you feel stressed.
  • Max Richter is a German-British minimalist composer whose 2015 work Sleep is actually inspired by sleep itself-in the face of our society that is always on and fast-paced.  This piece has several movements that combine to a whopping eight and a half hours and are just right for-you-guessed it-relaxation and sleep.  “Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)” is a beautiful and mesmerizing piece about 10 minutes long that can help you turn off your hectic thoughts and anxiety-comprised only of a piano, violin, and a viola.  Perfect.
  • Arnold Schoenberg is the father of the 12-tone technique-the use of the chromatic scale-in all 12 pitches.  From Germany, this composer was thrilled to discover this technique that did not have the global impact he had hoped for, but is still the most influential (and daring) method created in the 20th century music world. 
  • Pierre Boulez was a radical French American composer who embraced the 12-tone technique (Schoenberg) in the 1940s and was known for the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique (IRCAM) which is the partnership of music with computers.  He was very influential in combining classical pieces like Beethoven and Handel with serialism as a conductor to modernize it and open up what he referred to as “infinite possibilities”.   
Minimal electronic music composer - Minimalist Music - Gone Minimal
Minimal electronic music composer

Post-Minimalist Music

Post-minimalist music refers to music which has been influenced by minimalism and categorized as art music.  This style was widely popular in the 1980s-90s and has the following characteristics:

  • Steady pulse
  • Diatonic pitch with nontraditional tonality
  • Even dynamics (no climax or emotion)
  • Nonlinear pattern

This style also practices additive and subtractive processes in terms of instrumentation and is influenced by global music practices.  Post-minimalist music strives to push the minimalist style beyond boundaries and include nuances from folk music, jazz, and others to make it a bit more complex in its structure.

What Was the First Minimalist Music Composition Piece?

Minimalism in music began sometime in the mid-1960s and in the classical music genre.  The first minimalist music composition piece came in 1959 from Dennis Johnson, November, and is a solo piano piece.  As an experimental piece, it is characteristic of what we know of minimalist music today-diatonic tonality, repetition of phrases, an additive process, and with its duration of six hours would come to define minimalist music composition going forward.

Here is an excerpt of November by Dennis Johnson.

What Kind of Instruments Are Mainly Used in Minimalist Music?

There is really no limit to the kind of instrument used in the minimalist music style.  Minimalist refers to the number of instruments, the melody and harmony, as well as repetition of notes and chords.  However, the kind of instruments mainly used in minimalist music include the following:

  • Piano (or electronic keyboard)
  • Drum (kick or bass)
  • Marimba
  • Strings (guitar, cello, violin or viola)
  • Saxophone
  • Trumpet
  • Voice

All of these instruments can be used at once, or one at a time, as long as there is harmony and a steady beat. 

Other References:

From a melodious piano solo to house and electronic, minimalist music has broken down many barriers in the music world.  These artists and composers have brought new meaning to minimalism as well as creating works we can use every day.  Whether it’s a stressful day, a study session for an upcoming exam, or in preparation for sleep-minimalist music could be just the answer to all of the above in getting us in the right mindset.

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