What Is Minimalism In Music? A Complete Guide (2023)

The movement toward minimalism in music essentially began during the 1960s, alongside the minimalist movement in art. Although some composers experimented with minimalism in music before the mid-20th century, the minimalist movement in both art and music flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.

This article will examine the movement toward minimalism in music during the 20th century music era and explore how music expresses its influence today.

We’ll explore the history of minimalism in music, various musical theories and stylistic elements developed at the time, and some critical minimalist composers. We hope you’ll leave with a new understanding and appreciation of the innovative dynamics and expansion of musical definitions the minimalist music movement contributed to the music world.

Table of Contents

When was the Minimalism Era?

Minimalism in music gained a firm foothold in music history during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

After the advent of the electric guitar raised the noise threshold and the ability of players to play more notes faster during the new contemporary period in the 1950s, the art world, in general, underwent a period of contrast and embraced reductive expressionism during this period.

The experimental techniques from the musical periods preceding the minimalist era helped spur composers to push the limits of the definition of music to create a whole new genre of music by definition.

Some of the preceding musical eras that helped promote minimalism in music include the following:

  • Modernism (1890-1975)
  • Impressionism (1890-1930)
  • Expressionism (1900-1930)
  • Neoclassicism (1920-1975)
  • Serialism (1920-1975)
  • Contemporary (1950-current)

Style of Minimalism

Michael Nyman may have first used the term “Minimalist” inThe Spectatorin 1968.

(Video) What is Minimalism in Music?

Nyman is an English pianist, librettist, musicologist, and composer of minimalist music upon whose work the Michael Nyman band was founded in 1976.

Nyman claimed to have found “a recipe for the successful minimal music happening from the entertainment presented by Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts).” (Nyman 1968, 519.)

However, self-proclaimed minimalist composer Tom Johnson claims to have been the first to use the term ‘minimalism’ in reference to music as music critic forThe Village Voice.

Johnson describes minimalism as “any music that works with minimal materials“.

  • pieces that use only a few notes
  • pieces that use only a few words of text
  • pieces written for minimal instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses
  • pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time.
  • pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams.
  • pieces that move in endless circles.
  • pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound.
  • pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another.
  • pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D.
  • pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute.”

Today, minimalism in music is commonly recognized as a form of art music that limits the number of musical instruments in a composition or replaces traditional instrumentation with non-instrument sources as musical expressions.

Minimalist music typically features repetitive patterns, phrases, or beats, extended droning sounds, and consonant harmonies.

New Musical Forms

The minimalist movement introduced new elements and forms of music, some of which remain in vogue today.

The minimalist approach to music is marked by a non-narrative system that calls the listener to focus on the process or phases of the musical composition or score and promotes active listening rather than serving as a mere backdrop for other activities.

Two of these new musical reflections include phase music and process music.

Phase Music

Phase music is essentially considered a type of minimalist music, although some puritans consider this a category of its own.

In phase music, the defining feature is the play between unison and contrast of two musical instruments playing together but not necessarily in tandem.

(Video) Minimalism Music Techniques

The two instruments may begin playing in tempo together, but they gradually shift tempos until one plays after the other, creating a doubling or echo effect.

Eventually, the two instruments meet at the same tempo again, at which time they are again playing in sync with each other.

Composer Steve Reich popularized phase music by looping the same phrase on different playback devices simultaneously, creating what is known astape musicor electroacoustic phase music in 1964.

Soon after, around 1967, Reich and other composers began writing phase music for instruments, creating instrumental phase music.

Process Music

Process music is widely defined as music that arises from a process, whether audible or not.

The musical process can be defined as “a highly complex dynamic phenomenon involving audible structures that evolve in the course of the musical performance … 2nd order audibledevelopments,i.e., audible developments within audible developments.” (Seibt, Johanna, 2004)

Process compositions often use symbols in notation that were not previously considered musical notation, such as plus, minus, and equal signs.

These symbols indicate unspecified transformations not delineated by the composer.

Instead, those sounds are left to the performers’ interpretation, leaving them open to interpretation and endlessly changeable.

Reich also came up with the term “process music” in his 1968 manifesto, “Music as a Gradual Process.”

While Reich wanted listeners to hear the process throughout his music, other composers, like John Cage and David Lang, experimented with non-auditory compositional techniques.

(Video) Repertoire: The IDEAL Musical Minimalism Collection

Silence in The Minimalist Era

In contrast to the musical periods preceding it, the minimalist era did not emphasize any scale patterns.

Instead, minimalist music focused on improvisation, non-instrumental sounds, non-choreographed sounds, or repetitive loops that followed a pattern but not necessarily a scale.

Minimalist music often leaves out any tonic or center key, favoring instead a kind of quiet chaos interpreted as a type of unstructured order.

Silence plays an essential part in minimalism music, building on the adage, “Music is not in the notes but in the silence between.”

Composers of the minimalist era often credit John Cage’s 1952 piece4’33”as the pioneering work for the minimalist age, although it was created before the movement gained momentum.

The song contains three movements lasting a combined total of four minutes 33 seconds.

The composition has no notes and is completely silent.

Instead, the music lies in the sounds made by the audience during each movement.

This innovative work broke all the previous definitions of music and blasted the structures that had contained compositions up until then.

Important Minimalism Era Composers

Composers of minimalist music broke down barriers that had previously defined music for all of music history.

Primarily seated in the United States and the United Kingdom, minimalist composers used new technologies to change how we perceive natural and man-made sounds.

(Video) Can Minimalism Work for Musicians?

The following composers are considered the most influential of the time:

  • Steve Reich (1936 – current)
  • Philip Glass (1937 – current)
  • Terry Riley (1935 – current)
  • La Monte Young (1935 – current)
  • Michael Nyman (1944 – current)
  • Tom Johnson (1939 – current)
  • John Cage (1912 -1992)
  • John Lewis (1920 -2001)


Many instruments used in minimalist music have been used for centuries and are still used today.

Standard minimalist instruments include organ, wind instruments, string quartets, and for some composers, entire traditional orchestras.

Modern-era instruments like saxophones, mallets, and various percussion instruments are often used in minimalist compositions.

Natural sounds like rivers, rain, thunder, wind, and insect are sometimes employed as instruments.

Man-made sounds from automobiles, trains, factories, machinery, and other synthetic sounds are often used as a basis for or complement minimalist works.

Digital effects are often used to change the sound of instruments or effects.

Adding reverb, chorus, or wave distortion was common, as was using skipping or looping to create a complete work.


Minimalism has played an important part in music history.

Its influence is still heard today in electronic dance music, rap and hip-hop beats and loops, and experimental music of the 21st century.

Listeners can hear minimalism’s influence in tracks from the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, and it has helped humans think of the sounds of nature as more musical.

(Video) The 4 rules of techno minimalism

And minimalism is the basis for modern art forms like ASMR and meditation music.

We hope that you’ve gained a new appreciation for minimalism in music and that you’ve enjoyed learning about minimal music’s history and continuing impact on music today.


What Is Minimalism In Music? A Complete Guide? ›

Minimal music (also called minimalism) is a form of art music or other compositional practice that employs limited or minimal musical materials. Prominent features of minimalist music include repetitive patterns or pulses, steady drones, consonant harmony, and reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units.

What does minimalism mean in music? ›

The musical style known as minimalism emphasizes repetition, shifting rhythmic patterns, and composition concepts that extend beyond traditional classical music.

What are the 5 characteristics of minimalist music? ›

Minimalist music often features:
  • layers of ostinati.
  • constantly repeated patterns that are subjected to gradual changes.
  • layered textures.
  • interlocking repeated phrases and rhythms.
  • diatonic harmony.

What is the theory of minimalism music? ›

What is minimalist music? Minimal music is an aesthetic, a style, or a technique of music that originated in the New York Downtown scene of the 1960s and represents a new approach to the activity of listening to music by focusing on the internal processes of the music, which lack goals or motion toward those goals.

What is minimalism and what are the key features of minimalism? ›

Being one of the most key components of minimalist design; uniformity, symmetry, and balance are key features to focus while working with a minimalist concept. Symmetry and balance apply to the layout of furniture and the overall décor. It can also be applied in the arrangement of elements, color scheme, and lighting.

What are the 3 characteristics of minimalism? ›

Flat rather than skeuomorphic patterns and textures. Use of a limited or monochromatic color palette. Strictly limited features and graphic elements. Maximized negative space.

What are the key elements of minimalism? ›

The minimalist approach uses only the essential elements: light, form and beautiful materials, usually in an open plan layout, to create a sense of freedom and relaxation. There is no excessive ornamentation and decoration.

Who are the key minimalist artists? ›

The development of minimalism

It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s with Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Robert Morris becoming the movement's most important innovators.

What is an example of minimalism? ›

Examples of extreme minimalism include willingly living without furniture and owning less than 15 items. The best way to put it is that extreme minimalism is a more obvious example of the reduction of possessions than normal minimalism—pushing the boundaries of what would conventionally be considered comfortable.

What is the opposite of minimalist music? ›

In the arts, maximalism, a reaction against minimalism, is an aesthetic of excess.

Who is the father of musical minimalism? ›

Terry Riley is often called one of the "founding fathers" of minimalism. Working with classical Indian musicians, Beat poets, and all manner of contemporary composers, Riley has created a body of work that not only defines the genre, but transcends it as well.

Who is the founder of minimalism music? ›

Minimalism is a branch of modern classical music developed in New York in the early 1960s by composers such as Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.

What is the rule of minimalism? ›

The 90/90 rule for minimalism encourages you to keep only items you've used or will use within 90 days. This minimalist rule is all about timing.

What influenced minimalism music? ›

Minimalism arose later in the 20th century as a reaction to the complexity, structure, and perception of twelve-tone serialism as it developed at the hands of Schoenberg's disciples. As you'll see when you start reading, the aesthetic of minimalism means different things to different composers.

What is the 10 10 rule minimalism? ›

Take a moment and write down your ten most expensive material possessions from the last decade. Things like your car, your house, your jewelry, your furniture, and any other material possessions you own or have owned in the last ten years.

What is the 3 3 3 rule minimalism? ›

here it is. Project 333 is a minimalist fashion challenge where you dress with only 33 items-including clothing, accessories, jewelry, and shoes-for 3 months. I'm going to tell you more about the rules later on, but right now, you're probably either thinking, Cool . . . let's do it, or . . .

What is the goal of minimalism? ›

But while minimalism in interior design can mean different things to different people, the goal of minimalism remains broadly the same: to find clarity, calm and value by living with less.

What is considered minimalism? ›

Minimalism has become a popular practice in recent years. When you live as a minimalist, you strive to only use things that serve a purpose. It's about living simply and having only what you need to go about your daily life.

What does minimalism truly mean? ›


Like I mentioned before, minimalism is intentionally living with only the things I really need—those items that support my purpose. I am removing the distraction of excess possessions so I can focus more on those things that matter most.

Which composer is famous for his minimalist style? ›

Often regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the twenty-first century, American composer Philip Glass is best-known for his minimalist compositions.

How does minimalism affect music? ›

Minimalist music, like minimalist art, was an attempt to rebuild classical music from its simplest foundations, to reduce its materials to the barest essentials and slow down the pace of change so that listeners could follow the musical process.

Why is minimalism important? ›

In addition to reducing clutter, minimalism encourages the reduction of everyday consumerism. By buying fewer new things and recycling, reusing, and repairing items we own, we can use significantly fewer natural resources and produce less waste and pollution.

Are there different types of minimalism? ›

There are many types of minimalists, depending on the purpose of minimalism and what they choose to keep or eliminate. Some devote their lives to nothing but art pieces, while others just like to keep quality products around. Some want to give their lives a new start, while others want to live an unchained life.

What is the 90 rule of minimalism? ›

What Is The 90/90 Rule For Minimalists? The 90/90 rule for minimalism encourages you to keep only items you've used or will use within 90 days. This minimalist rule is all about timing.

What is the opposite of minimalism? ›

Unlike minimalism, which focuses on simplicity and understated design, maximalism embraces excess and extravagance.


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2. Minimalism in Music: Why Less is More in Today’s Dance Music
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