Network of European Minimal Music Organisations

Getting to know Minimal Music

Minimal Music is the American export hit in contemporary music. Its omnipresence in contemporary music is remarkable. Composers of the first generation: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philipp Glass laid the foundations for this new music in the USA in the 1960s. These four pioneers have been developing minimalist music ever since; a compositional trail that has been followed by numerous ‘post-minimalists’ of later generations. Their influence has also had an impact on numerous composers and styles worldwide. Minimal Music is therefore a living phenomenon of recent history: it is intercultural, global, versatile and defies clear categorisation. Its ability to connect with pop music, techno, jazz and ‘world music’ demonstrates its inclusive power to build bridges between genres. It has always managed to maintain contact with the audience and fascinate amateurs and experts alike. Plenty of reasons, therefore, to take a closer look at this fascinating music.

Music teachers regardless of the institution at which they teach should first acquire the following basic knowledge. It is advised to do own research according to own interests/knowledge/access to knowledge concerning the following key points:

History of Minimal Music

  • Emergence phase: USA in the 1960s, spirit of optimism in society, cultural tension in California/New York, Fluxus movement (USA and Europe), serial music
  • Protagonists: special features, commonalities among them (influences of non-Western music, career initially beyond ‘classical music’, experimentalists)


The Protagonists specification (keywords):

  • Young: static, mysticism, inaccessible person, self-promotion
  • Riley: Improvisation, psychedelic movement, openness to all music
  • Reich: focus on rhythm and processes, composition for more classically orientated ensembles
  • Glass: focus on harmony, work with media (film music), operatic works, strong tendency towards mainstream and popular music


European reception:

Rejection and enthusiasm at the same time, reception by Americans gave strong impetus to the perception of European Minimal Music


Aesthetic values

  • Reduction
  • Processuality
  • Comprehensibility


Compositional principles

  • Repetition
  • gradual change
  • Steve Reich’s process techniques: replacing pauses with tones (and vice versa), phase shifting


Intercultural basics

  • Familiarise yourself with elements of the musical cultures of West Africa, Indonesia and India and understand the extent to which American Minimal Music has been influenced by them


Parallels in other arts

Minimal Art: Works by Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Robert Morris in the 1960s exhibit similar design principles to Minimal Music: Sequencing or repetition, reduction, simplicity

Youtube: “Tones Drones and Arpeggios The Magic of Minimalism” [Documentary on the emergence and triumph of American Minimal Music against the background of its time with numerous statements by the pioneers] Part 1 Part 2
Gaining personal access to Minimal Music


Firstly, it makes sense to acquire own knowledge of the above keywords and gain an overview. The BBC documentation linked above and the material at the end of the module can also help with this. It is often also sufficient to go through musicological encyclopaedia articles or summaries from teaching materials. It is also advisable to watch and familiarise yourself with relatively well-known films with music by Philipp Glass (Koyaanisqatsi, The Hours, The Truman Show) in order to be able to quickly prove to students initially that Minimal Music has also found its way into pop culture.


Listening to important pieces of Minimal Music

These are some of the most important pieces of Minimal Music for different instruments and from different times. Of course, there are many more and also by other composers that are worth listening to and discussing. This list may be enough to get you started. Afterwards, depending on your preferences and teaching situation, certain Minimal Music should be explored in more depth.


American Minimal Music


  • La Monte Young: Composition 1960 No. 7 (1960)
  • Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968)
  • Terry Riley: In C (1964)
  • Steve Reich: Piano Phase (1967)
  • Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood (1971)
  • Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1976)
  • Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion (1969)
  • Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach (1975)
  • John Adams: Shaker Loops (1978)


European Minimal Music


    • Michael Nyman: Time Lapse (1985)
    • Tom Johnson: Maximum Efficiency (1991)
    • Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells (1973)
    • Nik Bärtsch: MODUL 35 (2003)
Learning Minimal Music through playing

In order to actively familiarise oneself with Minimal Music, elementary and stylistically exemplary pieces should first be worked on in order to enrich the experience of listening through one’s own playing. By playing characteristic and style-defining pieces such as Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood and Clapping Music, Terry Riley: In C, La Monte Young: Composition 1960 No. 7, Philip Glass: Façades and Opening, the basic principles of Minimal Music can be explored: repetition and gradual change (process), patterns and modality as well as specific principles of addition and ‘model-building processes’

With the help of various playing instructions and ‘pedagogical’ pieces by Ulli Götte, these basic principles can also be implemented in improvisation and composition, thus providing inspiration for a creative approach to Minimal Music


  • Fink, Robert: Repeating Ourselves. American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, Berkeley 2005.
  • Götte, Ulli: Minimal Music. Geschichte – Ästhetik – Umfeld (= Taschenbücher zur Musikwissenschaft 138) Wilhelmshaven 2000.
  • Mertens, Wim: American Minimal Music, Amersham 1983.
  • O’Brien, Kerry: On minimalism. Documenting a musical movement, Oakland 2023.
  • Potter, Keith: Four Musical Minimalists. La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Cambridge 1999.


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