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20th Century Theory




Music stripped to its fundamental features
Often uses consonant harmony, a steady pulse, ostinato, and slowly evolving textures
A reaction to the complexities of serial music
Characteristics of Minimalism
Minimal music is characterized by the repetition of very short phrases that change gradually producing a hypnotic effect.
nSimple and direct music
nStatic tonal structures
nAdditive rhythms
nTextural consistency
nConstant repetition
nDrastic reduction of musical materials


LaMonte YoungAmerican (born 1935)



nAdhered to serialism and was attracted to the music of Webern

nCarried the reduction of elements to an unprecedented extreme
nHis music is long and repetitive, and though these qualities, he sought to make audible subtle differences in the musical narrative.
nThe entire piece consist only of an interval of a perfect fifth (B-F#) that is held for a very long time

Here it is realized using 2 candles.

qX for Henry Flynt or more traditionally X for Henry Flynt (1960)
nConsists simple of the striking of an object (unspecified) every second or so over a very long period of time (duration also unspecified)



Philip Glass – American (born 1937)


nHis music is very similar to Reich with the additional use of additive melodic formulas
nMusic for opera, dance, theater, orchestra, film
qThe Hours
qFog of War
qMusic in Fifth
nAn initial figure of 8 notes is gradually expanded to 200 notes.
qLes Enfants Terribles (1996)



- a Hopi word loosely translated to "life out of balance"

Einstein on the Beach (1937)

  • Opera has no real plot or character development

  • Lyrics are mostly numbers & solfege syllables

  • Title derived from Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach about nuclear destruction

The Hours

Steve Reich – American (born 1935)


nWhile working with tape loops he became fascinated with the possibilities of ‘phase shifting’
qE.g., playing two or more identical loops at slightly different speeds so that the repetitions move gradually ‘out of phase’
qPiano Phase (1967) for two pianos
nLimited range of pitch material
nSteady rhythmic pulsation
nConstant repetition

Steve Reich:  Music for Pieces of Wood


Come Out



Phasing in minimalism occurs when different musical layers start at different times from one another but use the same ostinatos, creating further patterns and irregularities.
The layers are said to be ‘phased’ out of time with each other (think of ‘Clapping Music’ by Steve Reich).

Clapping music visual


Terry Riley - American (born 1935)


qIn C (1964)

qAleatory piece for any number of performers and undetermined duration
qConsists of 53 musical phrases that may be repeated an arbitrary number of times in disynchronization
qConstant repeated C in the piano functions as a metronome
qInfluential to many pop and rock artists including “The Who” (Baba O’Riley)


John Adams – American (born 1947)


Phrygian Gates

also shows score

Short Ride in a Fast Machine

The influence of different styles of world music cannot be underestimated in the development of minimalist music.
All the composers above were fascinated by the hypnotic rhythmic and melodic patterns of world music, especially the Indonesian Gamelan and African Drumming.
Many minimalist composers visited these areas of the world and immersed themselves in the sound and style of the local music. 


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