Composing in The Minimalist Style

(This lesson first appeared in Share the Music, 8th Grade edition.  It has been altered to accommodate high school students.)


Objectives:                                          Students will compose a 16 measure minimalist work in the style of Philip



Standards:                                           Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.

                                                                Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.



Materials:                                            Student biography on Philip Glass

                                                                Excerpts from Opening and Floe by Philip Glass.

                                                                Manuscript paper or composition software (Finale, Sibelius, etc.)




And Experiences:                             Students should have already studied chords, basic harmonic progression,

                                                        and notes/rhythms.  Students must have already practiced composing

                                                        music (not necessarily of this style)



1.                   Pass out copies of Philip Glass’ biography, and have students read the paragraphs out loud.  If desired, listen to an audio sample of Einstein on the Beach to illustrate the information provided about that work.


2.                   Play excerpts from “Opening” and “Floe” from Philip Glass’s Glassworks.  Discuss how in Glass’s work, the same themes are repeated many times, but slight variations always occur.  Listen again and have students describe the types of changes Glass uses (harmonic, rhythmic, use addition of tones), and the frequency of these changes.  What makes small shifts interesting for the listener?


3.                   Inform students that they will be composing their own 16-measure minimalist work.  They must come up with their own short theme of 3-5 notes.  This will be the main motif of their compositions.


4.                   Once students have their motif, students should use background chords, rhythmic shifts, and tonal additions to make their short pieces interesting for the listener.  Make sure they keep in mind that the changes should be subtle; do not turn an eighth note into a whole note after the first measure, but it is possible to work up to that point over the 16 measures.


5.                   Once the pieces are completed, students may perform their works for the class.  Make sure the pieces have a title.



Assessment:                       Students critically discuss minimalist form and how music that seems repetitive

                                                            music actually contains many small variations to generate interest.

Students successfully compose a short motif and build it into a 16 measure song.

Students successfully write small variations on the motif throughout the piece using

            chord changes, rhythmic shifts, and slight additions of tones to their original