Analysis of ‘Different Trains’ By Steve Reich (movement 1 ‘America Before the War’)

Different Trains, composed in 1988, is played by a string quartet and tape player. 1 year after its release, in 1989, it won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The meaning behind the piece was that as a child during WWII, Reich made journeys between his two parents, who lived in New York and Los Angeles. Years later, he pondered about how if he had been in Europe instead of America, the trains he had been on may have been destined for Nazi Holocaust camps.

Again, with Different Trains Reich pushed the boundaries of minimalist music and what was known and accepted, by using recorded speech as his melodies, and then adapting the parts of the strings to fit around the speech, a technique which hadn’t been used previously. One of the motifs is ‘From Chicago to New York’, this is repeated throughout the piece and accompanied by notes of the same tone on the strings. The way that Reich uses the voice, strings, train whistle and other background noises creates a multitracking effect. Similar to Reich’s counterpoints: Vermont Counterpoint, Electric Counterpoint and New York Counterpoint. it is very moving and compelling because it features the voices of Holocaust survivors depicting Jewish people being sent on ‘Different Trains’ to concentration camps. And then Reich gets the strings to emulate speech patterns and melodies.

Analysis of ‘Different Trains’ By Steve Reich (movement 1 ‘America Before the War’)

Analysis of ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ by Steve Reich

‘It’s Gonna Rain’ is a composition by Steve Reich. Lasting approximately 17 minutes and 50 seconds, it is considered by many his first successful composition. It was composed on a magnetic tape in 1964 and published in 1965. Reich recorded the same thing on two different tape recorders. Originally he intended for the two phrases to align with themselves at the halfway point, however due to the imprecise technology of 1965, the tapes went out of sync due to slight differences in the recorders.

Minimalist techniques used

This piece is very influential because it was one of the first memorable times that phase shifting had been used. Phase shifting is where a repetitive phrase, (the same bit of music) is played on two different instruments or in this case tape machines, but often at slightly different speeds, so that gradually the two different instruments move out of unison. At first creating an almost echo like effect, one straight after the other. then they move further apart until eventually they complete the loop and return to the beginning.

Reich also uses a form of diminution, but not in music, in speech. “It’s gonna rain” is diminuted to “it’s gon- it’s gon-“, taking up the same amount of time, but using two words ( equivalent to two notes) instead of one.

Because no instruments are used, Reich can’t really use many Minimalist techniques, but this made up for by the fact that this piece was way ahead of its time, and Reich was exploring the unknown, so that others could follow. after this piece, using tape recorders and phase shifting became a big part of music history.

Analysis of ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ by Steve Reich

Analysis of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ (Third movement – ‘Fast’)

In the third movement of ‘Electric Counterpoint’, Reich uses many Minimalist techniques.

It is composed for 10 guitars, (8 guitars and 2 bass guitars) and generally 9 are pre-recorded, and one is played live.

Movement three has a time signature of 3/2. Each 3/2 bar has a total of 12 quavers or twelve-pulse units. The African drumming that Steve Reich took inspiration from often consist of rhythms organised into twelve pulse units.

One of the Minimalist techniques that Reich uses is an ostinato. played on guitar one the whole way through the piece (apart from during the change to C minor).

This is the first guitar. it plays alone for the first bar, and then in the second bar, the live guitar is added, playing three notes. by bar six, this has built up to a full ostinato through note addition. then the next 3 guitars join, each playing the same ostinato but starting at different points in the bar.

Then the two bass guitars are introduced, first playing in alternate bars and then continuously. Again, using note addition, they build up to a two bar ostinato in bar 33. Panning is used to send one bas to the left speaker, and the other to the right.

The live guitar plays strummed chords, which causes a change to the texture. guitars 5, 6 and 7 begin their chord sequences.

The way that Reich builds up the piece by gradually adding different melodies and using note addition, as well as creating different textures creates a sense of metamorphosis as the piece comes to the end.

Analysis of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ (Third movement – ‘Fast’)

Steve Reich Discography

Steve Reich has composed over 50 pieces of music in his career. Spanning over 50 years, his earliest piece was a soundtrack for the 1963 film ‘Plastic Haircut’. His latest piece is from 2013’Quartet for two vibraphones and two pianos’.

The complete list of his compositions in chronological order is:

  • Soundtrack for Plastic Haircut, tape (1963)
  • Music for two or more pianos (1964)
  • Livelihood (1964)
  • It’s Gonna Rain, tape (1965)
  • Soundtrack for Oh Dem Watermelons, tape (1965)
  • Come Out, tape (1966)
  • Melodica, for melodica and tape (1966)
  • Reed Phase, for soprano saxophone or any other reed instrument and tape, or three reed instruments (1966)
  • Piano Phase for two pianos, or two marimbas (1967)
  • Slow Motion Sound concept piece (1967)
  • Violin Phase for violin and tape or four violins (1967)
  • My Name Is for three tape recorders and performers (1967)
  • Pendulum Music for 3 or 4 microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers (1968) (revised 1973)[39]
Steve Reich Discography

Steve Reich Biography

  Steven Michael Reich was born on the 3rd of October, 1936 in New York City. He studied at Cornell University and graduated with a B.A. In Philosophy. His parents were Broadway lyricist June Sillman and Leonard Reich. However at the age of 1, his parents divorced and he had to split his time between them, travelling between New York and California. He later based a piece of music called ‘Different Trains’ on these journeys. As a child he was given piano lessons and at the age of 14 music became his passion, and he began to study music in his spare time after he had listened to music from the Baroque period, ( it was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and that was the moment he decided that he had to be a composer. ) which was approximately 1600-1750. This era followed the Renaissance, and in turn was followed by the Classical era. He also listened to music from the 20th century which previously he hadn’t been exposed to. After this, he learnt drums in order to be able to play jazz.


In the summer of 1970 Steve traveled to Ghana to study drumming. He made his way to Accra in irder to study with Gideon Alorworye, a master drummer in Ghana. He had planned to stay for longer, but after 5 weeks he had to return due to illness. And after that experience he spent almost a year writing one of his most famous and influential pieces: Drumming.

Also, Steve Reich was influenced by Gamelan Music with its complex layering and fast interlocking patterns. In 1973 and 1974 he studied different types of Gamelan music; Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkley, California. And from 1976-1977 Reich studied the traditional forms of cantillation (chanting) of the Hebrew scriptures in New York and Jerusalem.

Roles in Minimalist Music

Along with other composers, such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass, he pioneered minimalist music in the 1960’s. Reich was very innovative and ahead of his time. For example, he was one of the first to use tape loops to layer his music. In the guardian, Reich was described as one of ‘ a handful of living composers who altered the direction of musical history’. One of Reich most famous Minimalist pieces is ‘Electric Counterpoint’. The word ‘Counterpoint’ refers to a texture where two or more melodies are combined. It consisted of three ‘parts’ : fast – slow – fast. He has also written many other Minimalist pieces, such as a later piece of his; written in 1989, titled ‘ It’s Gonna Rain’. It was innovative because Reich set himself down on the street with a tape machine. He could only record what was happening at the time, so couldn’t choose what to record, he had to get lucky and record something good at the right time. After he had recorded it, he used the very new technique of looping his music to create the effect of  the voice speaking over and over again. He then changed the tempo of this to suprise his audience in a way that they had never seen before.

Steve Reich Biography