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Chapter 6 Contents


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Minimalism as a style or technique (as in music, art, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme sparseness and simplicity.  In music, it is an avant-garde style originating in the 1960’s with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams being the main purveyors of this style.  


Benward White, in his Introduction to Music Theory describes it as “the gradual unfolding of a limited body of motivic material, often with an unprecedented high level of literal repetition.  The motivic material is most often, tonal or modal, and largely diatonic.  Minimalism owes it heritage to influences from African and Asian music.”


Furthermore, minimalism is a reductive style or school of modern music (and art) utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestral complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.  (


Minimalist art appears at the same time with simplistic, pure elements and shapes.


Illustration 6.1 Minimalist Art

tony simmons minimalist art.png

Tony Simmons– Wikimedia labeled for reuse.



piet mondriaan

Piet Mondriaan–Wikimedia labeled for reuse

barnet newman.png


Barnet Newman–Flickr labeled for reuse

Conversely, here is a piece of music by minimalist composer Steve Reich titled Music for Pieces of Wood along with a graphic real-time score representation.



Illustration 6.2  Steve Reich–Music for Pieces of Wood

music for pieces of wood.png

6.1  Minimalist Comparison


Conduct an A-B comparison between the art and the music presented above.  Ask questions such as:  How are they similar?  How are they different?  What characteristics or techniques are found in both.


While there is great speculation that these composers were influenced by African and Eastern music, the similarities are certainly obvious.  The following is an example of the type of music that may have influenced these composers:

6.1  Balinese Monk’s Kecak Dance (Monkey Chant) from the documentary Baraka

Baraka  | Directed by Ron Fricke | 1992

Minimalist Techniques

You probably have a strong sense of minimalism music based on the previous representations.  We can add to this understanding by identifying specific compositional techniques to assist you with the decision-making process when creating your own minimalist score.  Consider also that a minimalist score can be combined with other types of languages to create a vibrant alternative.  For example, the Kecak Dance (Monkey Chant) could be colored with additional non-tonal or abstract sounds to further heighten its affect.


The techniques that this style of music utilize include, but are not limited to:


• Augmentation – this is where the note values are doubled in length, i.e. an 

  eighth becomes a quarter.

• Diminution – the opposite of augmentation.

• Phase shift – when the composer is using audio clips they will split the signal 

  between left and right channels. They will then speed up one of those 

  channels to create a looping effect.

• Addition – a composer will add notes one or two at a time to build up a 


• Subtraction – the opposite of addition.

• Melodic transformation – gradually changing from one motif to another by 

  way of small changes i.e. you could replace a C for a C# and then a D.

• Rhythmic displacement – a composer will move a rhythm by a certain

  number of beats (inserting a rest at the beginning and then shifting the  

  rhythm on by a beat).

• Use of polyrhythms – polyrhythms are many rhythms, layered over each 

   other that create a singular rhythm.

• Use of an ostinato.



6.1 Example Ostinato for Piano

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6.1 piano ostinato.png

Additionally, offers these descriptors:

• Complex contrapuntal textures.

• Use of broken chords.

• Slow harmonic changes.

• Melodic cells (the use of fragmentary ideas).

• Gradual changes in texture and dynamics.

• Resultant melody, where a melody emerges as the same notes occur at the 

  same time in the phase, giving them emphasis.

• Tonal ambiguity where the key is not clear or different harmonizations are 



Additional examples of minimalist music that offer both contrapuntal complexity, and in the second and third example, textural complexity.


6.2–6.7 Example Minimalist Pieces with Scores

Steve Reich – Clapping Music

Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint: I. Fast 

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine 

Steve Reich – Piano Phase

John Adams – Phrygian Gates 

Steve Reich – Eight Lines (Octet with score)

6.2  ABCD Comparison


Play each of the 5 tracks of minimalist music placed against the minimalist experimental video Four Tet.  Note that the film editing does not always align to the music since four of these works were not written for the film.  Regardless one can assess their suitability and effectiveness.  Discuss which one works best and explain why you chose it.  Also identify which one you think was the original in the video and its differences to the others.

Track 1. Steve Reich – Music for Pieces of Wood (redone on piano)

Track 2. Phillip Glass – Einstein on the Beach

Track 3. Steve Reich – Music for Large Ensemble

Track 4. Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

Track 5. Four Tet – She Moves She

6.3  Creating a Minimalist Pattern


The following steps 1-6 can be used to develop a minimalist ostinato beginning with a single note and gradually building towards a complex contrapuntal pattern.  Use this approach to create your own.  You may wish to use rests as well.  This will add additional interest to the pattern.  Displacing notes to a smaller and smaller rhythmic value will also lead to a more complex sounding pattern.  Using alternating meters, i.e. 4/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/4 gives direction and push to the pattern.  


Once you have completed your minimalist pattern, experiment with different virtual sounds anåd note velocities to get additional impressions of your pattern, which may or may not lead to additional subtle changes which heighten its impact.å

Step 1

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6.3 Ex 1.png

Step 2

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6.3 Ex 2.png

Step 3

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6.3 Ex 3.png

Step 4

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6.3 Ex 4.png

Step 5

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6.3 Ex 5.png

Step 6

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6.3 Ex 6.png

6.8 Example Minimalist Pattern for Marimba

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6.8 marimba ostinato complete.png

Duncan Metcalfe

Additional Minimalism Techniques

The previous examples focused on minimalism as it pertains to the early 20th century art music genre.  Minimalism in film music can also use short instrumental or rhythmic patterns and have limited instrumentation or organic slow moving synthetic chordal textures.  The idea is related but executed differently.  For example, the cue may use an ostinato pattern that may or may not change, the score may be limited to two or three instruments, and a collective timbre of lush sounds may be used to achieve an organic nature.  What they do have in common with the classical art form is that tempos and harmonic movement are generally slow, meditative in nature, and/or ambient.


6.1  Creativity on Demand–Minimalist Pattern Changes


Create a 12-measure minimalist pattern for marimba.  Use notes from any of the following modes:


Illustration 6.3  The Seven Musical Modes

the seven modes.png

Duncan Metcalfe

Copy and paste the pattern over to 12 new measures and change one note.  Continue this process until you have 96 measures or more.  Then change one or two notes, depending how complex the pattern, in each of the patterns.  Measures 12-24 will have one change, measures 24-36 will have all the changes made previously and ones made for this section.  In other words, changes carry forward to the subsequent pattern.  Audit each change to make sure it works for you.



6.1  MIDI Tip


Be sure to change velocities for some notes to give them an accent.  Also, do this before you copy the pattern and for each changed region.


Once you have made all of your changes, add a melodic idea as counterpoint to the pattern.  Share and discuss.  Perhaps it may work well with the Fourtet cue or one of the following film cues.  You have 30 minutes to create your track.

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