Minimalist musicians have been around since the 1960s, when minimalist music was born. True to the minimalist style, this type of music is known for a few key features as well as the composers who stand behind it.
Minimalist musicians compose using minimal instruments, steady drones, and repeating patterns. Key features include few instruments, simple melodies, and the key is repetition. Genres where this style can be found range from classical to electronic house.
What do you think of when you hear the term minimalist musician? Are you looking for music to help you relax, study, or meditate?
What Is a Minimalist Musician?
A minimalist musician is one who composes music with minimal instruments, constant harmony, steady drones, and repeating patterns. This style of music composition began in the United States sometime in the 1960s, and as an experiment! This type of music is much like what you would expect from minimalist practices: uncomplicated and interesting.
What Are Features of Minimalist Music?
There are key features of minimalist music, through all different genres, including jazz, classical, pop, and even film soundtracks. Minimalist music is noted for its use of repetition and slow processes. It focuses on simple musical elements and variation. Minimalist composers may attempt to portray a more stripped-down and meditative musical experience.
Other key features of minimalist music include:
- Minimal instruments and voices
- Chords of single notes
- Repeated melodies and notes
- Slow, gradual changes
- Structured repetition
- Pulsing or hypnotic effects
- Minimal to no embellishment
Repeating is the main characteristic of minimalist music. It involves repeating notes, patterns, melodies, or musical phrases. This is commonly heard in minimalist house and electronic music, usually created by a DJ with electronic instruments.
Repeating is heard across all genres of minimalist music and can vary from the same instruments playing the same melody repeatedly, or alternating different instruments and voices. It can even sometimes include the same melody played at different tempos, usually with gradual changes. Repetition really is the key feature of minimalist music.
Another key piece to minimalist musicians’ work is the use of few instruments in their compositions. This varies from a single piano to a string quartet with vocals, sometimes one instrument (or vocal) at a time to alternating instruments.
Some minimalist musicians will even use only an electronic keyboard to produce multiple sounds and instrumentation, keeping the process still pretty simple when it comes to composing and recording. Sounds a little complicated, doesn’t it? It’s important to get to know some famous minimalist composers and learn a bit about their works to better understand minimalist music.
Who Are Famous Minimalist Composers?
There are many well-known composers of minimalist music, ranging in style from piano and classical to electronic and house. Let’s look at a few of these minimalist composers and some of their works:
Steve Reich (American Composer famous for creating pulse music) is known for introducing phrasing, which is using different tempos and instruments to play the same song or just part of a song. His 1988 Different Trains, which contains only recorded voices and a string quartet, is a melody that sounds like a train, but no train is involved.
Some other notable works by Reich include Piano Phase (1967), Tehillim (1981), and WTC 9/11 (2010). Reich has received numerous awards from Gold Medical in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to a Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Philip Glass (American Composer and Pianist known for repetitive and shifting layers) is known as the father of modern minimalism and has composed many musical pieces for piano, orchestra, and film. His most known piece is “Opening”, from the 1982 Glassworks collection. Glass is the founder of the Philip Glass Ensemble which still performs to this day. Other pieces he is well known for include Symphony No. 3 (1995), The Passion of Ramakrishna (2006), and The Perfect American (2011). His works have been called contemplative and graceful and have even been nominated for three Academy Awards.
Phrasing, which is using different tempos and instruments to play the same song or just part of a song.
Terry Riley (American Composer known as a pioneer of minimalist school of composition) is known for his 1964 composition In C, which is 53 short phrases that are played by different musicians and instruments. This piece has the same melody and tempo throughout and is approximately an hour long, making it a great piece for study, relaxation, meditation, and even sleep. Another composition of his, A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968) has been the inspiration to many electronic music developments.
John Adams (American Composer and conductor rooted in minimalism) is noted for operas telling the stories of historical events using vocal, choral, piano and more in his music. He most recently composed the opera Girls of the Golden West (2017), a story inspired by letters written by Dame Shirley (Louise Clappe) in 1851 and 1852 in the infamous California Gold Rush. Adams uses more immense orchestra than the minimalist traditional composers and has received 5 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer, and 6 honorary doctorates for his work.
Arvo Pärt (Estonian Composer of classical and religious music) is known for inventing tintinnabula, which was inspired in part by Gregorian chant. His music was in 2019 the second most performed, whereas he was first from 2011-2018. His works are identified as holy minimalism with pieces like Tabula Rasa and Adam’s Lament. His awards include several honorary doctorates as well as Gold Medal for Merit to Culture and American Academy of Arts and Letters Department of Music.
What Are the Main Features of Minimalist Music?
The main features of minimalist music are repeated notes and/or melodies, simple patterns, pulsing, minimal instruments, and gradual changes. It’s usually pretty easy to recognize because you’ll hear a melody or musical phrase that is repeated throughout the song, sometimes in the same fashion and sometimes with different instruments or voices.
What Instruments Are Used in Minimalism Music?
Some instruments that are used in minimalism music include piano, strings, voice, saxophone, drum, marimba, and trumpet. More often than not, these are electronic instruments rather than the physical instruments, and through repetition these instruments are played individually or only a couple at the same time. It is usually kept pretty simple, but at times can sound pretty complex!
How Do Composers Create Minimalist Music?
Composers create minimalist music by using a simple melody and usually repeating that melody. Minimalist music is created with few instruments and voices, keeping the sound uncomplicated and even hypnotic at times. The composers create minimalist music to keep things simple, sometimes tell a short story through notes and sounds, and to produce a relaxing and even hypnotic effect for the listener.
What Real People Notice About Minimalist Music
Find a piece of minimalist music. Then, ask friends and family to list 3 things that they notice within the music that makes it sound different than other genres. Here is what they shared and what I learned from the poll:
|What They Noticed||Tally of Family/Friends|
|No story with vocals||3|
|Not a lot of instruments||3|
|Can hear the pattern||1|
Here is a super helpful explanation of what minimalism in music is and a brief example on piano.
Minimalist musicians have created melodious sounds and patterns to most of the musical scene. Their compositions have touched dance floors, clubs, symphony halls, and even yoga studios but have been played all over the world. So minimalism doesn’t only exist in your home-it’s in music as well!
With its repetition and simplicity, minimalist music could be just what you need for meditation, relaxation, and sleep. You never know-you may have even heard minimalist music in a movie recently!