I am primarily trying to identify the types of compositions and approaches to composition that would produce such music, with any particular composers or pieces that might make good examples as helpful side notes. I should note that I mean classical music in a collective sense, not just the one era.

I'll come right out and admit that "ambient" and "atmospheric" are rather subjective terms. From a textural sense I'd say they refer to an unobtrusive rhythm (or such intense rhythm that the structure is no longer readily apparent), and a not necessarily harmonic structure but certainly not monophonic. I'd say these compositions would value "feel" over any sort of technical standard, without sacrificing the latter outright. The mood of the pieces should never feel especially urgent or powerful, yet still offer something of significance and some measure of emotional depth. If I can further clarify what I'm looking for please let me know how!

As a frame of reference, I personally consider some of the work of Stravinsky (certain parts of the Firebird suite), Satie (his Gymnopedies), and Reich (Music for 18 Musicians, his Counterpoints) to fit the bill. A good specific example is the 9 Beet Stretch which, in case you are unfamiliar, is Beethoven's 9th Symphony stretched to play over the course of 24 hours- it's essentially a neverending sound, something that could be constantly on in the background without distracting you. A better example (in that it's more concise and the various elements are more distinct, allowing the mood to be more obvious), albeit one outside of the genre, might be Radiohead's Treefingers.

EDIT: I have edited the question to emphasize my main point. To all who have solely provided examples, I apologize, but I do appreciate your input! I'm mainly looking for the types of compositions and the elements thereof; the examples were expected to be sidenotes.

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    The Wind in High Places by John Luther Adams ( and probably a lot of other pieces by this composer would fit your description). Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 20:54
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    I would also suggest Johnny Greenwood's symphonic works. I believe he wrote all of the music for There Will Be Blood. Another good album would be Popcorn Superhet Receiver.
    – piofusco
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:16
  • While the style is quite different from modern ambient or atmospheric music, a lot of 18th century music was written to be played in the background while other activities, (eating, conversation, etc) took place.
    – Peter
    Commented Jun 13, 2022 at 8:21

6 Answers 6


Morton Feldman is a major composer in this sort of music. His style was very quite, slow enough to be essentially ametric, and in his later works he become interested in extremes of time - his String Quartet No. 2 is over six hours long. Rothko Chapel is his best-known work. Feldman's does often included some quite strong dissonance, unlike much other ambient music.

Toru Takemitsu is another composer heavily influenced by Morton Feldman, who combines the mentioned quietness with a deep understanding of the use of timbre.

La Monte Young - who was associated with Steve Reich - wrote The Well-Tuned Piano, which is a five-hour work for custom-tuned piano, that is designed to create complex harmonics between the notes. It's a hugely impressive work, but a recording is nigh-impossible to find nowadays.

Dennis Johnson wrote November - which actually inspired La Monte Young to wrote The Well-Tuned Piano - which spends very long periods of time developing very simple motifs. It is completely tonal (beginning in G minor), unlike many pieces mentioned.

You've mentioned Steve Reich. John Adams is another minimalist whose original unique selling point was a greater sense of tonal movement then Reich or Glass. His Phrygian Gates and the significantly easier China Gates were his original declarations of his style.

Phillip Glass has been mentioned as well. Often his music is quite dynamic and highly rhythmic, so I don't think that's what you're looking for. His solo piano output, however is quite different. See for example his Metamorphoses or Mad Rush.

Einojuhani Rautavaara's Canticus arcticus is an orchestral piece based around soundscapes of birdsong recorded by the composer in his native Finland.

Hans Otte has written a number of highly minimalist suites for solo piano - Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds) and Stundenbuch (Book of Hours).

I have several albums by Rain Worthington, who writes/improvises extended piano pieces based on very slowly changing ostinati. For example, her North Moore Street Loft-2nd Concert.

György Ligeti has written a number of works that might be what you're looking for. His Atmosphèresfor orchestra or Lux Aeterna for SATB choir are both very unrhythmic and Luc Aeterna shows a very focused expression of one thing.

Scelsi wrote works that concentrated in minute detail on small gestures, like an ascending scale of an octave, using very detailed notation and microtones to fill this out to be entire works. However, I've only read about him, not yet got around to listening to him, so I don't know if this fits.

Some early music might fit, such as the very early chant music of Perotin or Hildegaard von Bingen for example.

Some more 'conventional' composers that might have a bit of what you're looking for: Sibelius' Symphony no.7 perhaps? Some Debussy but I'm not very familiar with his work. Arguably some late Beethoven, like the second movement of his Piano Sonata op.111.

I'm uncertain whether this counts as Classical music, but William Basinki's Disintegration Loops consist of him looping old tape samples of his orchestral music until they fall apart.

  • Thank you for all your suggestions, especially those in which you mentioned what makes them fit the bill. If you have any more insight into what you've suggested I'd love to hear it! Also I agree, conventional composers may very well have what I'm looking for, another arguable example being Schubert, especially some of his slower pieces.
    – RICK
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 1:31
  • Also, if you happen to know of a source for a physical copy of The Well-Tuned piano that isn't ridiculously expensive (in this case that would be less than $100 I suppose), could you please share it? I've been looking for one for some time now without any luck.
    – RICK
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 1:36

All of the above. However, you mention Satie - it's worth mentioning that it was he who first explicitly conceived the idea, in his description of "musique d’ameublement" (furniture music). Compare Brian Eno's definition of 'ambient music' around 1970 - music that is "as ignorable as it is interesting" - to Satie's, half a century previously:

"A music...which will be part of the noises of the environment...softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself."

So, perhaps also consider these Satie pieces, dating from 1917-1923: Tapisserie en Fer Forgé, Carrelage Phonique, Chez un “Bistrot”, Un Salon, and Tenture de Cabinet Préfectoral.

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    Also Satie's Gnossiennes, which have a regular gentle pulse, like the Gymnopédies.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 9:14

Some slow music by Olivier Messiaen is so slow that it is hard to perceive a metre -- and in most cases there isn't a /regular/ metre anyway. For example:

  • Le banquet céleste
  • L'Ascension: 4 Prière du Christ montant vers son Père
  • La Nativité du Seigneur: 3 Desseins éternels
  • Les corps glorieux: the latter part of 4 Combat de la mort et de la vie
  • Quartet for the end of time: 5 Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus and 8 Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus (both these movements are arrangements of earlier works, but the arrangements for the quartet are better known)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie: 6 Jardin du sommeil d'amour

Space, repeated phrases or loops, slow transitions, atonal effects, long reverberation or delay/echo times, lack of surprise, slow attack (instruments, crescendo). Ambient music can be surprisingly complex and combine different forms. However, it is the emotional and imaginative response of the listener to the sound that will define what is ambient or atmospheric. Those seeking to experience such music will enjoy music that has few, if any, distracting elements, be well balanced, have a sense of flow and generally induce a positive 'eudaemonic' psycho-emotional or spiritual response.


Try the 20th Century minimalist works of Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and also sometimes the piano of George Winston. Steve Reich, particularly, uses some looping (called "phases" sometimes) that quite often acheive an ambient affect.

  • Yes, I am quite fond of Reich, and I mentioned that his Music for 18 Musicians and his Counterpoints made good examples of what I'm looking for. Thanks for the suggestions!
    – RICK
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 0:46

Try listening to works by Vaughan Williams. Some parts of his works are very atmospheric. An example would be "Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis". It was used in the film "Master and Commander" to give an atmospheric feel to a little boat in a big ocean.

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