Music at School


Area of Study 2


The use of Cells is a popular musical composing technique for minimalist composers (as well as some experimental composers). The idea is that instead of using bars, composers use cells. These cells are repeated throughout a piece of music to create different textures, melodies and rhythms. The most famous piece of music that uses cells is called “In C” by Terry Riley. In this piece Riley uses a number of cells and instructs the performers to repeat them as many times as they want to before moving on to the next cell

Here is a performance of “In C”



A canon is a device used by composers to create a contrapuntal texture. (contrapuntal just means that the melodies work in contrast to each other). The most famouse canon is probably “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.Composers through the ages have used this device to create textured music and will often apply their own style (or the style of the era). For example, you can hear canons in 18th century Baroque Music as well as 20th century minimalist music.

Minimalist Composing Techniques

There are several techniques that composer employ to create minimalist music:

  1. Augmentation – this is where the not values are doubled in length i.e. a crochet becomes a minim
  2. Diminution – the opposite of augmentation
  3. Phase shift – when the composer is using audio clips they will split the signal between left and right channels. They will then speed up one of those channels to create a looping effect
  4. Addition – a composer will add notes one of two at a time to build up to a motif.
  5. Subtraction – the opposite of addition
  6. Melodic transformation – gradually changing from one motif to another by way of small changes i.e. you could replace a C for a C# and then a D
  7. Rhythmic Displacement – a composer will move a rhythm by a certain number of beats (inserting a rest at the beginning and then shifting the rhythm on by a beat)
  8. Use of polyrhythms – polyrhythms are many rhthms, layered overr each other that create singular rhythm

Here is an example of melodic transformation:


Serialism is a technique for creating music that uses a set of notes that are used in scrict order. It is also known as twelve-tone music as it uses all 12 notes of a scale and thus has no key. The music makes use of angular “melodies” (that don’t sound like melodies at all) where notes jump from high notes to lower notes and back again. When listening to the music you will notice that there is alot of contrast in dynamics and pitch – to the pont where listening often becomes very uncomfortable. The aim of the composer was to pour lots of emotion into the music and that is why it probably sounds so intense.

Important serial composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg. 

Experimental Music

Experimental music is a term introduced by the American composer John Cage in 1955. He tried to defined it as “an experimental action where the outcome of which is unforeseen”. It is music that the composer or performer doesn’t know what the result of the composition will be.

In a more general sense, it is music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is.

 More about Experimental Music Here

Musique Concréte

Musique Concréte is a term that is often used to describe the process of taking real world sounds and making them “musical”. Traditionally, music begins as an abstract thought either on paper of through another medium, which is later on turned into music. The aim of musique concrète is different, in that it strives to begin with the sounds, experiment with them, and turn them into musical compositions. So, the starting point for traditional music is seperate from the sound. Musique concréte is the oppostie.

When: late 1940s and 1950s

How: helped by developments in technology, particularly microphones and tape recorder.

Who: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse

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