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Finding Meaning in Minimal Techno

Finding Meaning in Minimal Techno

I have never been a huge fan of minimal techno (also known as just ‘minimal’). I love going clubbing, I love the release of having a massive night out, but I prefer the music to ‘take me on a journey’ with highs and lows, waves, peaks and troughs, with the possibility of having a sing-along once in a while. While dancing to music I love I have experienced indescribable moments which I will inadequately categorise as euphoric. I believe that my friends have also experienced these moments when listening to minimal techno, and the search for these moments is part of the appeal of the music. But why couldn’t I find these moments in this type of music?  I felt that with minimal techno I was missing something that my friends seemed to ‘get’ and this bothered me. So I began my exploration: Can I find meaning in minimal techno?


Describing music is always a difficult task possibly not well-suited to language, but it is safe to say that minimal techno is usually characterised by repetition of beats, beeps, clicks and noises that sounds like digital glitches. Minimal nights usually have hugely powerful sound-systems with thundering bass. Volume is very important to the night because sound vibrations are registered on some level throughout the body. No one knows this better than today’s clubber. When a 25kW bass-line pumps through the floor and up your legs, you know the music isn’t only registered in the brain.

Minimal music is also referred to as repetitive music.  Since the 1970s explosion of disco, pieces of music have been produced specifically for mixing. They do not end or begin in the traditional sense that a song does, because where the beginning and end would ordinarily be, comes whatever the DJ has decided to mix in. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking notes that “we often experience greater intensity of living when our normal time values are upset…music may help to generate such experiences. The massively loud volume of the music… [can] act to structure time for those present, while they are present, as eternally in the present, as a momentary time of continual ‘now-ness.’ This is a key concept when discussing to search for meaning in minimal techno. It seems that the point of minimal music may not be to mean anything, but to facilitate physiological intensity or spiritual experience within us.

 “What we feel about music is essentially what the music means to us”

Feeling empathy

Somebody listening to music may say that it is meaningful to them, especially if they have an emotional reaction to it. Ben Malbon, author of Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstasy & Vitality, explains that  “what we feel about music is essentially what the music means to us, and so the clubber’s emotional and physical reactions to music are integral to uncovering the meanings which they invest in music.” Minimal techno does not possess inherently emotive properties which arouse listeners, but listeners may become aroused when the music combines with a particular context or set of circumstances, and the way that the listener interacts with these and processes these elements may result in an emotional response to the music. The context is vital to the experience we have of the music. That is not to say that everybody in a club will have the same experience of or reaction it. Some people may not feel emotional, especially if they are not used to their surroundings and environment. But others will have an emotional experience, enhanced or more easily achieved or recognised by being immersed in this context.

Drugs use

So what kind of context are we dealing with here? First if all, drug use is not unusual within the minimal techno scene. Ecstasy and MDMA are the most common drugs taken at these nights. Ecstasy users may experience waves of pleasure which build up tension in their bodies and then ‘crash’ in some kind of frenzy, often in time with the music. Malbon suggests that “the use of drugs represents in some ways an additional layer of emotional and sensational “action.”

“The use of drugs represents in some ways an additional layer of emotional and sensational action.”

Another effect of Ecstasy that users report to be enjoyable is a heightened sense of empathy, leading to a strong feeling of community and unity with other people at the night and the sense that everybody present is feeling the same. This does not, however, imply pointless hedonism. Many users have reported this to be a liberating, even spiritual feeling; something that they have not experienced before: “There came a point when I was just taken aback by…what we were and had become,” Malbon notes in Clubbing. “Some form of extraordinary empathy was at work in that crowd, particularly when at the kind of extended climax of the evening the music and lighting effects combined so powerfully with the moving crowd on the dance floor. Clubbers were losing it all over the place… The intensity of this fusion of motions and emotions was almost overwhelming.”


A second element which is inextricably connected to minimal techno, is dancing. Many people report a sense of transcendence or connection with a “higher level” while dancing to minimal techno in a club setting. Blacking describes how dancing can actually be “a prominent form of creative listening.” This exemplifies the way that we do not just listen with our ears, but engage with the music throughout our whole selves as our embodied mind processes the music and surrounding environment. Malbon proposes “the foregrounding of a mode of listening that prioritises the simultaneously motional and emotional understandings of the listeners. Listening as an embodied and emotional activity takes on various forms in various spaces. Some spaces are more suitable for a more fully embodied understanding through dancing than other spaces” and minimal techno nights are amongst those that encourage embodied listening.

  With minimal you are taken on a journey with no beginning, no end and no destination

All about the journey

Minimal’s function is to make people dance and come together, which people sometimes find meaningful.  However, it’s not useful to search within the music for meaning because this misses the point of its existence. There is meaning in experiencing the music but not within the music itself.  We can never tell when a set of circumstances will trigger something meaningful within us. Perhaps the repetition of the beat without many big changes, highs or lows, gives the listener the time, space and freedom to “get lost” in the music. At the beginning I wrote that I like dance music that takes me on a journey with peaks and troughs. These peaks and troughs may actually be destinations though. With minimal you are taken on a journey with no beginning, no end and no destination, travelling in all directions at once. This is a metaphor echoed by music journalist Cameron Eeles, who says of DJ Richie Hawtin’s album DE9: Transitions:  “There’s very little to take note of along this minimal highway. Which is, of course, entirely the point. It’s not the destination that’s important, or even sightseeing along the way; it’s the act of movement itself that’s celebrated here.”


Fiona Gaffney
Fiona Gaffney studied Media Practice and Theory for her BA at the University of Sussex, where she specialised in photography. Her main research interest was cyberactivism. After moving toLondon, Fiona studied for an MA in Transnational Communication and Global Media at Goldsmiths. Here, she became interested in critical theory of cybernetics, embodiment and processes at work when people use technology to create electronic music.

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