Network of European Minimal Music Organisations

Minimal Music Teaching Theory

The opportunities that arise from dealing with Minimal Music – not only within schools – are numerous. The fact that Minimal Music has found its way into school curricula as a specific event in recent music history has led to at least selective consideration in music lessons. However, the fact that the numerous pedagogical opportunities should also be utilised for music lessons as a whole and in all pedagogical formats should now be explained. It is a well-known fact that a solid theoretical basis is necessary for the meaningful teaching of also practical skills.

In a second step, the theoretical teaching content should be defined in relation to specific teaching units. The aim here is to impart the knowledge acquired in Module “Getting to know Minimal Music”, including, among other things:

  • Minimal Music as a style of new music of the 20th century.
  • main protagonists
  • exemplary works
  • compositional and aesthetic principles
  • Intercultural aspects

However, it is important to convey the following three fundamental concerns of Minimal Music and to have them “at hand” during teaching:

  1. Unconditionality

The musical principles with which the composers work are simple, basic and universal. Repetition is a universal creative device in music; it can be found in the music of all epochs and cultures. Reflecting on the basics of music promotes a view of the similarities between musical cultures and ensures a low entry threshold. Inclusion can be made possible here by the fact that Minimal Music concentrates on elementary structures that are shared by many music cultures on the one hand and that are at the beginning of every musical education on the other. It does not overtax anyone and is aimed equally at music professionals, people with (and without) a migration background and all music students. Minimal Music provides opportunities for all these social groups to participate equally in an artistic experience, regardless of their background.

  1. Comprehensibility

Minimal Music is particularly ‘comprehensible’ music. It is important to its protagonists that everything that happens sonically can be understood. The development of the music, the process, is made comprehensible, a ‘co-perception’ is made possible. This applies above all to the speed and density of the events: Changes in the music are often prepared for a long time, or they only take place very gradually. Before something new happens, the current state is repeated several times. This results in music that is very listener-orientated, that does not confront but includes and allows the listener to participate in its creation.

  1. Participation

Through comprehensibility and the absence of prerequisites, Minimal Music not only facilitates participation by the listener, but also performance by the player. In principle, you do not need years of expertise or mastery of an instrument to participate in Minimal Music (although there are also pieces that can only be played by professional musicians). Another aspect of this participation is improvisation or free composition. Many Minimal Music pieces are not exactly defined by notation; the number of repetitions can be freely chosen in many pieces. This creates great flexibility and enables a collective creative process. In addition, hierarchical structures within the instrumental groups are largely dispensed with; there is usually no ‘first violinist’.


Presentation of Minimal Music as a counter-development to the serial movement

The term serial music is used to characterise the compositional strategy according to which the structure of the series is transferred to all parameters of musical composition, which in the twelve-tone music of the 1920s (such as Arnold Schoenberg’s) initially only regulated the arrangement of pitches. In serial works by Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others, not only the pitch structure, but also dynamics, rhythm and form are predetermined by series structures. A number (1 to 12 are used to form a row) is thus assigned a pitch, a rhythmic and a dynamic value, for example, in order to guarantee that all dimensions of the movement are freed from late-romantic residues on the one hand and interact with each other ‘without contradiction’ on the other. The result of this compositional technique and stylistic movement are highly complex musical structures that can hardly be understood by hearing and could only be mastered by exceptionally good musicians. The ‘liberation’ and distancing of Minimal Music from the contemporary serial music of the 1950s was a central aspect of its reception and ultimately a guarantee of its success.

Presentation of Minimal Music as a consequence of the Neo-Dadaist Fluxus movement

The Fluxus movement initiated by the American artist George Maciunas can be interpreted as a renewal of the Dadaist movement of the first half of the 20th century. The reduction of ‘art value’, a ‘de-artification of art’, was promoted by artefacts from artists and musicians such as Ben Vautier, Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and many others in the 1950s and 1960s in numerous performances, films and paintings. La Monte Young and Terry Riley were also part of this international scene of artists. La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. X exemplifies this art form: “Draw a straight line and follow it” is a mere abstract instruction for a performance without any further concretisation. The composition 1960 No. VII is similarly sparingly, reductionistically formulated: “b and f sharp – to be held for a long time”, but at least it contains a concrete musical idea, which can also be counted as one of the pioneering works of Minimal Music. It is therefore extremely useful to trace these connections between early Minimal Music and the other arts just mentioned.

Understanding Minimal Music in the context of new music and art of the 20th century


  • Work through the above points and make them understandable for you
  • Compile theoretical teaching units about these aspects
  • Develop ways to analyse works of Minimal Music of your choice with students according to the above mentioned aspects
Communicate important works based on aethetic points

Communicate important works based on the aesthetic points presented (or others), including interculturality, comprehensibility, participation, unconditionality. 

The following example can be used as a pattern for your own piece. 

Example: Music for 18 Musicians


In Music for 18 Musicians, one hears influences from West African and Indonesian music. The sound world of West African music manifests itself in a complex and intense rhythm. This principle, according to which a single instrument signals the structures and sections for the entire orchestra and thus drives the music forward, is known in particular from Indonesian gamelan music. There it is the drum (kendang) that takes on this role. There is also the constant repetition of short rhythmic figures, which conveys a feeling of ‘standing’ music. Music that is not characterised by constant climaxes, contrasts and interruptions, as is the case in European music.


The basic material for the overall form is provided by 11 chords, which are introduced one after the other at the beginning and end. Hearing and grasping rhythm requires far fewer prerequisites than hearing and grasping a particularly complex harmonic sequence.


The piece is self-explanatory, so to speak: First of all, 11 chords are introduced; then section 1 (with chord 1) and a characteristic rhythm begin, then section 2 (with chord 2) and so on. Individual figures (patterns) are sometimes built up note by note; instruments enter one after the other and disappear again. Augmentation and diminution techniques, which can also be followed directly, characterise the musical events, the process.


You will realise that all instruments – with the exception of the vibraphone – are equal. As a listener, you are included because the music is intended to be comprehensible. The listener always has enough time to concentrate on different elements, to leave the process, but also to re-enter it again and again, as Minimal Music is a music of presence that knows no memory and no expectation.


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