Minimalism in Music and Its Development

Minimalism is an American genre of Downtown music which originated approximately in the 1960s and quickly progressed into the most popular experimental music style. La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass are considered to be the pioneers of the minimalist music; each of these composers has made a considerable contribution into the development of this style of musical composition. Under historical and cultural influences experienced at the time when it originated, minimalism has developed certain key concepts, compositional approaches, and musical works which will always be characteristic of this style and which help to trace its new directions in the last decade.

First of all, the composers of the 1960s have been led to minimalist aesthetics by certain historic events and cultural influences. Minimalist music was largely impacted by the marketing techniques applied in the 20th-century capitalist American society. Fink (2005) states that minimalist music “is actually maximally repetitive music, and that as a cultural practice, this excess of repetition is inseparable from the colorful repetitive excess of postindustrial, mass-mediated consumer society” (Fink, 2005, p. x). This society has been formed in the post-World War II America which could be characterized by the overproduction of consumer goods with consumption turning into a repetitive process. Minimalist music has emerged in response to this repetitive process with its steady beats and repeated patterns symbolizing repetitive events in the life of the American society. Apart from this, minimalism has also been a response to the American musical institutions’ attempt to impose the avantgarde style of Serialism on the society:

Serialism had long been the predominant form of “new classical” music dictating what defined good music, and even determining which techniques to employ when composing; it had become very difficult to think of a new form of music as the atonal revolution of “old” classical harmonics and structural principles had created new, equally restrictive rules. (Oberdorf, 2009, p. 41)

In this way, the fight for the freedom of choice led to minimalism replacing the old and the new classical music and serving as a historic reaction to the restrictions placed on American society.

In addition to historical influence, minimalist music has been subjected to a considerable cultural impact on the part of Indian and African cultures. The composers’ desire to develop a music style which had no European precedent led to the minimalism’s absorbing some non-Western techniques and aesthetics: “It is significant that Young, Riley, and Glass were inspired by Indian classical music, and that Reich studied African drumming” (Cox & Warner, 2004, p. 302). Minimalism served as a bridge between the United States and the non-European countries and the eastern influence on it accounts for some of the components of this style, though they cannot be regarded as universal. For instance, steady beats (reminding the heartbeat pulse) are characteristic of Indian music (especially North Indian classical music), while rhythmic structures achieved by means of drumming (which Steve Reich was especially fond of) can be found in African music. Therefore, the monotonous and repetitive way of living of the American consumer society, unwillingness to listen to the music imposed by musical institutions, and influence of Indian and African cultures has led the composers towards minimalist aesthetics.

Minimalist music is known not only for its rich historical and cultural past but for numerous concepts, compositional approaches, and musical works which are associated with it. As far as the most crucial concepts and compositional approaches are concerned, the use of the minimal amount of the musical material has always been a key concept of the minimalist composition (Charlton, 2006). Repetition of the musical patterns with such a small amount of musical material is characteristic of minimalist composers and illustrates their basic compositional approach to music; these patterns are then changed over long stretches of time with the listeners being sometimes unable to feel the change, which often gives the minimalist music a hypnotic effect. This makes patterns of notes used to create a mood of a minimalist composition a distinguishing feature of minimalism; unlike classical melodies which are based on individual notes, a minimalist piece is expected to be perceived as a whole with the notes taken separately making almost no sense. Thus, the generative principle of minimalist music is that “far from being miniscule in length as well as minimal in content, such compositions project audible change, slowly, over extended periods of time” (Whittal, 1999, p. 326).This periods of time may differ; for instance, some of Reich’s compositions are so slow that they change almost imperceptibly.

When discussing the development of minimalist music, it is worth mentioning that it has also been impacted by Oriental educational philosophies, such as the Suzuki method. There are evident similarities between this method and compositional processes characteristic of minimalist music. The essence of the Suzuki approach to teaching music consists in making the beginners listen to the music tracks repeatedly, even when the students are asleep (Fink, 2005). This creates a necessary nurturing environment which facilitates the process of learning. Specially for this Suzuki has designed a technique called tonalization; the exercises based on this technique focus on repeating musical patterns for ten and even hundred times, an experiment which Suzuki tested by himself:

… Since hundreds of thousands of Suzuki students now do less strenuous versions of that experiment across the world every day, it seems that, taken as a form of musical minimalism, the Suzuki Method is the most powerful culture of repetition, and the most persuasive and successful form of experimental musical practice, ever to come out of the fusion of Occident and Orient. (Fink, 2005, p. 15)

The Suzuki approach to teaching music accompanied the development of the minimalist music with the most crucial works being created using repetition as a basis. Repetition as such was injected into the minimalist music by Terry Riley in 1963 with The Gift and Mescalin Mix being the first compositions which used the tape delay (Obendorf, 2009). These works marked the origin of minimalist music and were followed by further diversifications of this style. This included Steven Reich’s idea of phase-shifting in Piano Phase and It’s Gonna Rain (Cox & Warner, 2004), as well as Philip Glass’s Music in Contrary Motion and Two Pages which used additive process as a basis (Potter, 2002). The minimalist movement in music started with these works and was in its full swing already in 1970.

Since 1970, however, minimalist music has experienced numerous changes with the last decade being characterized by minimalism’s new directions. For instance, there emerged New Classicism which can be characterized as a post-modern response to minimalism. Another direction which minimalism has developed is post-minimalism, a music style which took steady pulse from minimalism but which differs from this style in avoiding linear formal design. The brightest representative of post-minimalism is John Adams whose compositional style developed far beyond the repetitions typical for minimalism. His works turned minimalist music into more harmonic and melodic. Adams’ works had further influence on other minimalist composers and resulted in this style’s acquiring new expressive melodic constructs. Spreading of minimalism into the techno music has been even more tangible; this style has developed a separate minimalist form, namely, minimal techno which is another variety of electronic dance music and which can be characterized by the use of repetition and adopting the minimalist idea of using as less musical materials as possible. Finally, environmental music has emerged as one more direction of minimalism. This music style has preserved the major feature of minimalism, the repetition, but turned it into predictability due to the balance which is essential to it. Thus, in the 21st century minimalism has developed a number of directions and, though each of them has its own peculiarities, the repetitive patterns still remain common to all of them.

In conclusion, minimalism has emerged in response to American consumerism and the society’s unwillingness to listen to the music which was imposed on it. During its development it continued acquiring new elements, especially under the influence of Indian and African cultures, the Suzuki Method of teaching music, and the musical compositions of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass. In the 21st century it started changing into new music styles. At present, minimalism can be found in such music trends as techno, environmental music, etc with special influence on it being produced by John Adam’s new compositional style.


Charlton, K. (2006). Rock music styles: a history. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cox, C. & Warner, D. (2004). Audio culture: readings in modern music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Fink, R. (2005). Repeating ourselves: American minimal music as cultural practice. Los Angeles: University of California Press

Obendorf, H. (2009). Minimalism: designing simplicity. New York: Springer.

Potter, K. (2002). Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whittal, A. (1999). Musical composition in the twentieth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.