Minimalism itself began as an art movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. First catching fire as a visual art style, minimalist ideas about art have stretched far and wide to influence many other mediums. Music is no exception.
The later part of the 20th century gave birth to minimal music. Minimal music is an intricate style of classical music that, just like the famous minimalist design style, takes close attention to detail and the right touch to achieve the desired effect.
What is minimalism in music?
First emerging out of New York, minimal music (as one can imagine) was formulated to have as few musical components as possible. Up to a century before minimalism’s emergence, art in general had phased, relatively quickly, in and out of several different periods and fads.
Art moguls were constantly pushing the boundaries of what society defines as art. Minimal music was created in order to further challenge the norms of music and the precedent that music is only good if it’s sweeping, dramatic, and complex.
Though “minimal”, it wasn’t as easy to get right as it might sound. But throughout history there have been several notable minimalist composers including La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams, and Michael Nyman.
In fact, in the 1960’s Nyman claimed to have concocted “a recipe for the successful minimal music…”. So we’re going to examine what makes music “minimal” and what makes minimal music unique.
Minimal Music: What makes music “minimal”?
Much like the minimalist style itself, minimal music is unembellished and simplistic. In the usual minimalist spirit, it emphasizes the beauty in simplicity. This method of composing was given a formal definition by Tom Johnson, a minimalist composer, in the late 20th century. He defined it as “any music that works with minimal materials”.
Composers of this style most often use classical instruments or natural components such as rain and wind. They sometimes use digital filters over their sound effects, which can create an electronic feel. Minimal music has several other trademarks that qualify it as “minimal”, and we’re going to take a look at them!
Minimal music does stem from classical music. So it only makes sense that you’ll find instrumental elements such as woodwind and brass instruments.
You’ll also hear a variety of string instruments, percussion instruments, some piano, and basic (usually looped) vocals. As mentioned before, minimalist composers sometimes utilize techno-effects over instruments and vocal recordings.
However minimalist composers aren’t confined to this list of instruments. The bounds of minimal music are constantly being pushed by experimenting with new effects and instruments.
Some examples of experimental minimal music tactics are the use of everyday objects, like drinking glasses, to make music.
Repetition is used very often in minimal music. Some minimal songs might repeat a melody, others might repeat a phrase. Usually over the course of the song, this repetition will alter as the composer makes minor changes such as subtle note changes or additions to the beat.
Speaking of “additions to the beat”, it’s not uncommon for composers to add elements (such as an extra cord, rhythm, or sound) at certain points in the song, usually the middle and end. In other words, they start the song with a basic melody, then at the midway point add a simple drum beat, then around the last chorus you add an additional harmony.
You might have encountered this technique in some mainstream songs. This strategy of building-on creates a climaxing effect in which the song subtly grows in intensity.
A harmony is when multiple notes or multiple tones are played/sung simultaneously, creating a chord. These simultaneous notes create a layering of sounds that, when matched correctly, creates a beautiful effect. Static harmony describes when the harmony stays consistent throughout the song.
Phasing is a music technique that creates an almost echoing effect when done correctly. Phasing involves two instruments, vocals or sounds. These two sounds play the same pattern or say the same phrase, but they start at different times.
For example, a violin and a cello are set to play the exact same melody except the violin is instructed to start playing half-a-beat after the cello starts playing.
Here’s a little refresher on what a chord is: a chord in music is three or more notes of different pitch that are played simultaneously. Hence, broken chords are when these different notes/pitches are not played at the same time, but instead inconsistently.
In other words, imagine a guitar. Instead of strumming three different notes at the same time (a chord) which would produce a long, consistent wave of sound, you’d break it up in some way so that you’re playing back and forth between the three notes but not playing all three at the same time (a broken cord).
We can all describe a “droning” noise, right? Well that’s similar to what drones are in music. Drones are low-pitched tones that remain constant and sort of drag on. These drones usually serve to highlight a higher-pitched layer somewhere within the song.
Only a few notes
Minimal music is, unsurprisingly, composed of only a few notes. It is not meant to be complicated! Just a few notes and lots of repetition, occasionally with some effects. It’s the masterful way that musicians compose these few notes that make it truly enjoyable!
Tips for Our Everyday Minimal Musicians
Music is a gift. It’s cherished by billions of people around the world. It carries cultures, stories, religions, and trends. We fall in love to music, we celebrate to enthusiastic tunes, we share our souls through song.
That’s a long-winded way of saying music is awesome and you should definitely give making your own a try! It’s a healthy and soulful way to express yourself and tacitly relay feelings of joy or sadness.
There are plenty of compact instruments and methods with which to make some minimal music of your own. You’re encouraged to practice any instrument that makes you truly happy—if you found your match, kudos to you!
Simplifying your methods
However if you need some suggestions or want to simplify your music methods a little, read on!
Minimalist instruments. The best minimal instruments have little to no separate components, are small, and relatively easy to use. For your first (or next) minimal instrument consider a ukulele, harmonica, pipe flute, ocarina, or a small panda drum.
Vocal music. In other words, singing! Fun fact: did you know that almost anybody can sing or learn how to? It’s a skill that’s innate to humans. If you don’t see yourself playing an instrument, pull up some vocal exercises and start working your lungs! With a little consistency, you’ll be wowing your cat with your lovely voice in no time.
Use music to align yourself. If you incorporate mindfulness or spirituality into your minimalist lifestyle, consider getting a singing bowl. A singing bowl is a bowl most often made of a mix of bronze and other metal alloys, but also can be made of crystal.
Each bowl comes with a corresponding wand also made of metal, crystal, or sometimes wood. They vary by size and design, both of which affect the pitch they produce when played.
Singing bowls are infamously used to realign or heal one or more of the chakras, banish negativity, and promote a peaceful and happy atmosphere. You may also use cymbals, a gong, tuning fork, or chimes.
Make music with everyday items. You can do it wherever you go. Even professional minimal composers have commissioned the use of objects into their music! Tap glasses of different sizes and experiment with the sounds. Or DIY a small instrument like a miniature guitar.
Make music with your body. It’s a peaceful, absentminded thing to do. Whistling is a natural ability and can create some impressively complex tunes! You can compose some great rhythms by snapping your fingers. Everyone can agree that beatboxing is the coolest thing ever! Hamboning is runner up!
The idea of minimalism has sparked the interest of people from all forms of life. Things that are “more dense” and “more complex” have become synonymous with being better, higher quality, or higher value. Music is not immune to people who want grander and bolder.
Minimalism objects to these ideas about what defines good music. Music can have depth and meaning without being blown up.
You’ll also find that minimal music is more abstract which makes it great for meditation. It’s serene for unwinding at the end of the day, or as a little background music to daydream to.