What is Minimalism in Music?

Piano Lessons / music theory / What is Minimalism in Music?

You may not have heard the term Minimalism but you have certainly heard the music. This is a recent evolution in music and it is featured in countless film scores. Today we are going to discuss aspects of minimalism and what separates it from different musical styles.

There have been a number of cycles throughout music history. Over time, musical forms become more complex and eventually reach a point where they collapse upon themselves. By the end of Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime, Baroque music had become so complex that it literally broke down and ushered in the Classical era of music with its well structured forms. This is not the only time this has occurred in history and sure enough this similar pattern is found throughout musical eras.

The Romantic period following the Classical period shared many forms. However, the structures were expanded as was the orchestra and the length of works. Harmonies and modulation of keys in the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss and others led to the breakdown of tonality with composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern abandoning tonality completely and ushering in the 12 tone system of composition which is not based upon major and minor scales at all!

Eventually in the 20th century we had another breakdown in music which ushered in minimalism. This form of music took incredibly complex music and broke it down into simple patterns and textures that interweave in new and complex ways. In the video provided with this article I play an excerpt from Orphee Suite for Piano by Phillip Glass to give you an idea of what minimalist music can sound like.

Many works in this period evolve very slowly with very small changes throughout and some will have overlapping textures with different length looping phrases on different instruments. It’s a fascinating style of music and it’s well worth exploring other works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and others. Thanks again for watching I’m Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

3 thoughts on “What is Minimalism in Music?”


  1. I am glad you gave some recognition to minimalist
    music which has influenced my composing of contemporary
    piano solos which you had a taste of when I came to visit
    and auditioned the concert Baldwin. I am reaching out to performing pianists and asking them if they would be interested
    in publically programing and performing some of my
    solos. Please let me know if you might be interested
    and I can then send you some music to review.
    Thanks for your consideration.

  2. Isn’t it amazing that ‘music’ mostly means finding interesting ways to combine and sequence just 12 tones? Yes, there are exceptions to this ‘system’, but it is amazing how durable and universal a system it is.

    Some film scoring explores additional ways of combining/sequencing other kinds of sonic elements, but even here, mostly, our ears still want the comfort of 12 tones.

    There are composers now and then who use other organizing principles to create music but, so far, none of these folks has captured our general imaginations.

    Of course, it took us a while to get to the point where we were regularly using chromatic scales. It wasn’t until the Renaissance period that mainstream composers began to play with ‘chromaticism’ regularly. (A fabulous counter-example is the music of Gesualdo who was exploring poly-chromatic music 300 years before the late Romantics – find a Youtube recording of Io Pur Respiro and this 2-minute gem will knock your socks off!).

    Just 12 tones (or less) in the span of an octave embrace music from Plato through the present day. The whole thing is pretty minimalist when you think about it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × two =