by Benjamin Keith
Throughout the past century of music, there has been a huge amount of change. Movements have come and gone, while technology has given people access to the immense diversity of music. When you step back and look at some of the biggest changes, minimalism stands out as one of the most impactful. Minimalism in western music, which sprouted in the mid-20th century, can be found today everywhere from electronic dance music to the orchestra.
Within Melodics, you might have come across the term ‘minimal’ or ‘minimalism’. Maybe you’ve heard these terms used when describing a dance track or a piece of art. Maybe this is totally new to you. Either way, it can be tricky pinpointing what people actually mean by this. Does a piece of music need to include minimal content, structure, or have a short duration, in order to be considered minimalist? Does minimalism make the music simple?
Let’s first acknowledge that minimalist music can have many different definitions. Among them is that minimalist music uses limited musical materials. I once had an acclaimed professor of music history at my college describe minimalism as music where ‘all the voices are immediately apparent.’ While most definitions like these aren’t necessarily wrong, they don’t get the full picture either. Music from oft labeled ‘minimalist’ composers, like John Adams or Steve Reich, is richly orchestrated, deep, and full of motion and change. On the other hand, when you’re spinning tracks by Plastikman you’ll hear just a synth and kick repeat the same couple notes for several minutes at a time. So if minimalism can range from the club to the orchestra, and from 50 instrumentalists to 2 – 3 synths, what else can we use to describe minimalism other than ‘limited musical material’?
One of the most important elements frequently left out when talking about minimalist music is the concept of process. Often times, it doesn’t matter how many voices are active. What’s more interesting is how they’re changing. In minimalism the excitement comes from the discovery of process. One voice can split into two or three. A synth’s tone can slowly evolve over the course of 10 minutes to a steady beat. Minimalism is best enjoyed when you discover the pattern, or the ‘rule’ behind how changes in the music are made.
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For your listening pleasure, here’s some amazing examples of minimalist ideas in music:
In this piece two pianos play the exact same melody, but one is played slightly faster than the other resulting in some really interesting patterns.
In C – Terry Riley
Another staple of early minimalism, a group of pianists play to a pulse, each repeating a set of predetermined patterns, but moving through them at different times. Want more?
Laurie Spiegel – Drums
Using pulses from a synthesizer, a series of rhythms fade in and out producing new grooves and syncopated patterns all while maintaining the same tempo.
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