Clapping Music, Steve Reich

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:58 pm

To close out the week of clapping posts, I present to you Clapping Music, an actual piece of art music by a real-life composer consisting only of clapping. The teacher of my composition class at CSUF, Lloyd Rodgers, told us about a performance of this piece at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: two grown men holding a concert audience transfixed simply by clapping onstage.

The piece Clapping Music, written in 1972, is by Steve Reich, one of America’s most important living composers. Reich is also one of the most prominent composers of minimalist music. Minimalist pieces usually consist of short cells or motives that are repeated continuously, gradually undergoing slow processes of change. Clapping Music fits this bill and also represents a variation of Reich’s idea of “phasing.” In this concept, two performers begin by playing, say, an 8-note-long melody in unison, and player B begins to speed up very gradually until his second note is in unison with player A’s first note (thus player B is now “out of phase”). They play in unison again for a while, and then player B speeds up slowly again until his third note is in unison with player A’s first note, and so on all the way through the cycle until they are playing the same melody in unison as at the beginning. (The Wikipedia article on Reich’s piece Piano Phase provides a more detailed explanation of how phasing is practially applied in that piece.)

In Clapping Music, the two performers begin by clapping the same rhythm in unison. After a few repetitions of this pattern, player B pauses for one beat and then claps the same rhythm one beat behind. After a few repetitions of that pattern, player B pauses for another beat and then claps the same rhythm two beats behind. The piece cycles through the whole rhythm this way, and it ends with the performers clapping the same rhythm in unison again. (You can see Reich’s handwritten score here.)

If there was a YouTube video of that WDCH concert, I’d love to share it with you; but this one isn’t half bad. Apparently it’s from a doctorate recital at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. If you’re interested in learning more about the piece, I recommend reading the program note by the performer under “More Info” on the video’s YouTube page. Or you can just watch the video below. I love how the first performer begins the clapping piece by joining in with the audience’s applause.

And that concludes our week of clapping posts! Give yourselves a hand!



  1. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 09.14.2008

    This piece was interesting. I thought the idea behind the piece was cool, but after about 30 seconds of clapping I was very bored. Once the two clappers are not clapping the same rhythm anymore the piece sounds exactly the same. But it must be very confusing for the clappers and they must have a lot of concentration to keep clapping the correct rhythm. All in all, it was interesting but became very redundant after a while.

  2. Gravatar

    Darth_Harbison on 09.15.2008

    I agree with what Mr. Fleming said . . . It seems like such a piece would be more effective as an exercise for musicians than as a piece performed for audiences. But maybe that’s just because I’m a musical layman.

    And in response to your last line: *groan*

  3. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 09.15.2008

    Hi Fleming and Darth,
    I have to admit I kinda agree with both of you–it’s a really cool concept, but it gets old pretty fast. This video is 3’21″, but the piece can last up to 5 minutes.

    Consider, though, if you were seeing it performed live. That might change the dynamic entirely.

    AJ Harbison

Leave a Comment