Music and the Other Arts: Expressionism and Minimalism as Examples

Instructional Resource

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Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
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Music and the Other Arts: Expressionism and Minimalism as Examples

Instructional Resource

The National Association for Music Education Composition/ Theory Connect #11 standard asks: Demonstrate an understanding of
relationships between music and the
other arts. One entree into the subject is to consider the correspondences of artistic move-
ments in very different art forms. For example: Just as there was an early-twentieth-century movement in painting called
Expressionism and a late-twentieth-century movement in painting called Minimalism, so there was Expressionist music and then
Minimalist music. For ideas on considering the music in light of the Expressionist and Minimalist paintings below, see READ MORE
or click the text box to the right of the rightmost picture. 

What is Expressionism?

The term Expressionism is as old as the twentieth century: in English, the first recorded use dates to 1901. Twentieth-century Expressionist artists, then, were aware that they were creating Expressionist works. The term refers to expressions of emotion, rather than expressions of ideas. Expressionist art is therefore marked by extreme subjectivity.

Expressionism in painting is represented here by Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) in his 1922 Composition, in the Hirshhorn Museum. Kandinsky is credited with being first in a form that did not yet have a name: Abstract Expressionism. While other Expressionist painters gave a subjective cast to the recognizable world—with unnatural colors, perhaps, or exaggerated shapes—Kandinsky freed himself from the recognizable world entirely.

Expressionism in music is represented by Kandinsky's Austrian-born friend and frequent correspondent Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Like Kandinsky, Schoenberg brought to his art a new concept that required a new name: atonal music, which dispensed with a key principle of western music.

Traditional western music places primary importance on the tonic, or tonal center, of the eight-note diatonic scale, with all other notes relating to that center. Schoenberg instead gave equal importance to all twelve half steps of the chromatic scale. The traditional progression of music is a venturing out from the tonic and a return home to the tonic. In atonal music, there is no place to go home to.

Fellow composer Ernst Bloch observed that Schoenberg's new system was guided only by “Expressionslogik,” or “logic of expression.”  The 1908 String Quartet No 2.  is one of the earliest examples. (Follow the link to a public-domain recording of the fourth movement, by the Carmel String Quartet.)      

What is Minimalism?  

Though the term Minimalism dates to the 1920s, it usually refers to a style that came to prominence in the 1960s. The term means just what it looks like: art achieved with a minimum of detail. Minimalism in painting is represented by the 1962 Line Up by American artist Frank Stella (b. 1936), also in the Hirshhorn. It is one of the first in a series of Stella's works made up only of stripes of color, all of equal width.

Minimalism in music is represented by the repeated spare melodies and gradual modulations of the American Steve Reich (b. 1936). A half minute of Reich' s 1989 Electric Counterpoint is in the public domain. It is performed by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Minimalism vis-à-vis Expressionism

Minimalism might be viewed as a natural development of Expressionism. For instance: Just as Kandinsky stripped representation from emotion and left only an abstraction, Stella stripped as much as possible from abstraction, including emotion.

But therein lies a great difference. Much of Minimalism is marked not by personal expression but by impersonal detachment. Stella said of his work: "What you see is what you see." In other words: Don't look for meaning in the stripes of color. They are only stripes of color.   


After listening to the examples of Expressionist and Minimalist music (Schoenberg and Reich), show the Expressionist and Minimalist paintings (Kandinsky and Stella), without identifying anything by artistic school. Pose a question that might lead to many various answers and many more questions:

Which painting looks most like which piece of music?

If the students are musicians, ask if they can identify a tonic (a center) anywhere in the Schoenberg piece.

With all students, ask if they can find traditional organization in the Kandinsky painting. Is there perspective (for depth) to the shapes? Or do the shapes seem to exist on the same plane? Is there balance between the two halves of the painting?

In short: Can you find a center to this picture?

Of Stella's Line Up, consider: Does the painter seem to feel strongly about this pattern of color?  Of the Reich piece: Does the composer seem to feel strongly about this pattern of music?

Back to Representation

It's possible that students will immediately identify Reich's music with Stella's painting by the regularity of pattern in each, but find much more emotional content in Reich's pattern. Teachers with enough years behind them may be reminded of the train music in the 1983 Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, by the electronic band Tangerine Dream. It is not a coincidence. Though Risky Business preceded Electric Counterpoint by six years, Tangerine Dream took inspiration from earlier Reich. The counterpoint in Electric Counterpoint refers to another Reich composition, Different Trains. If students perceive representation here (the locomotion of a train) it seems they are on safe ground.

Different Trains was based on reflections on his childhood during World War II. At that time, he was taken on many train journeys between New York and Los Angeles. It occurred to him later that if he had been born in Europe, he may have been taken on a Holocaust train. Both kinds of trains are represented in the work, which leads to a question:

In Electric Counterpoint, is this a train of adventure or a train of tragedy?


Listeners have heard a common pattern in Reich's work, ABBA, which can go by a name used almost exclusively for literature and rhetoric: chiasmus. A chiasmus is a statement in which a first topic (A) is followed by a different topic (B), and then a repeat of that second topic (B), and then a repeat of the first (A).

The most common example is the witches' first choral statement in Macbeth:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.


That statement is more specifically an antimetabole, meaning that exact words are repeated. In a chiamus, only topics need repeat. Shakespeare has many, such as this in Richard III:

Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person made a Jack.


The Bible has many more, such as these from the King James Version:

The last shall be first, and the first last.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (Which is an ABBAA.)

If students are musicians, ask if they can hear a pattern in Electric Counterpoint that can be identified with A's and B's, a chiasmus or something else.