Compose your own minimalist music - with Steve Reich and Ten Pieces

  • Learn about minimalist music and composer Steve Reich.
  • Explore music made using an ostinato, loops and short patterns.
  • Find out how to make your minimalist composition using just a few notes.

What is minimalism?

  • Minimalist music is created from short musical patterns.
  • The patterns are repeated, layered and changed to make them interesting.
  • It started in San Francisco in the 1960s.
  • Famous minimalist composers include Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass.
  • It is often used for film and TV music.

Did you know

Reich’s music was used in the films The Hunger Games (2012) and The Kings of Summer (2013).

Pioneer minimalist music composer Steve Reich.

What is Music for 18 Musicians?

Music for 18 Musicians was composed by Steve Reich.

The music features ostinati (repeated rhythmic patterns).

Reich uses one ostinato that gradually lengthens and then shortens over the course of the piece.

Watch and listen to the performance. Notice how:

  • The repeated patterns create a hypnotic effect.
  • There are small changes to the pattern throughout.
  • There is no conductor. The performers decide when to make changes.
Watch the performance of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (excerpt) by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra alongside students from The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Compose your own minimalist music

In this activity follow these steps to:

  • create an ostinato
  • make parts for different instruments
  • make a minimalist composition

To create parts for more than one instrument you could:

  • use music software with multiple tracks
  • play instruments in a group with others
  • record yourself playing and play along to your recording

1. Make up a rhythm

The first step is to make a simple rhythm. Use a recording device (a phone, digital mic or a computer) to capture your sounds.

Clap or tap a short rhythm.

Here’s an example of a pattern and how it could be written.

The is a minimalist rhythmic pattern. Listen to the rhythm and clap along.

2. Add more rhythms

Add another rhythm to fit with your first one.

  • Ask someone else to play the original rhythm while you make a new one.
  • Loop the original rhythm and add your own new rhythm. Looping means repeating your rhythm over again. You could use a loop pedal or music software to loop an audio recording.
  • Put it in music software and add a new rhythm.

Try to make five different patterns.

Watch this clip to see how to build up rhythms using clapping.

3. Add some notes

Once you have your rhythms, you can start to create minimalist music.

Reich uses four note patterns.

Choose any four notes on your instrument and turn your rhythm into a melodic ostinato.

Try them out in different orders until you find an ostinato that you like.

In these examples the notes used are D, E, G, A.

These are melodic patterns based on the rhythm. Try playing these and make your own variations. (Enter full screen to clearly see the full notation).

Top tip: Improvising is playing and making up new musical ideas. It is a great way to help you compose!

4. Put your patterns together

Play a pattern, repeat it and add or take out notes as you play.

Listen to how the patterns are linked but varied in each bar.

5. Change the length of the notes

  • Change the note lengths in your patterns
  • Play two of your patterns at the same time

Listen to each of these examples and then hear how they sound played together.

Listen to how the length of notes has changed.

6. Bring it together

Now you have lots of ideas. Can you bring them together to make a piece?

Here's some tips for bringing it together:

  • Make simple beginning and ending rhythms.
  • Try out a few different combinations of patterns.
  • Decide on the order you like best.
  • If playing as a group, change the patterns as you play like the musicians do in Reich's piece.
  • Layer your patterns in music software or with a loop station.

Perform your piece, record it and listen back.

Record your music

When you have finished, create a recording:

  • Export your track from the music software.
  • Record instruments playing your piece.
  • Make a video, putting your music to the film.

Where next?

Explore more KS3 Music activities from Bitesize and Ten Pieces.

Write your own Doctor Who theme
Make music about the world around you
Teacher resources - discover Ten Pieces Trailblazers!