What is New Age Music?
During the 1970's a new international musical movement began
to emerge. Always unfocused and multi-directional, it had never
had a clear identity. In 1986 it reached critical mass commercially,
and the record industry settled on a name — New Age music.
In the early days, when New Age was just one of many references
that were floating around to describe the nascent genre, listeners,
reviewers, and even the musicians creating it were unclear about
the meaning of the term, since a wide variety of contemporary,
experimental, and traditional styles were swept together under
the New Age umbrella.
As a description of grass roots spiritual movements the term "New
Age" has been around at least since the neo-spiritualist movements
of the late 19th century. It is here that the genre found its original
audience and probably its dubious reputation for intellectual rigor.
The idea that society is about to enter a New Age is a provocative
vision that has energized the hearts and minds of progressive people
for many generations. Aided by the astrological popularizers, we
remember how quickly society accepted the idea of the "Age
of Aquarius" in the Sixties. How and why music serves as an
expression of this vision is the question here, but the connection
is not all that obvious. To understand the role that this music
plays in our culture, we really need to know something about the
underlying psychological forces acting on both the musicians and
In his 1981 book Through Music to the Self (Vega Books; ISBN:
1843332086; June 2002) German composer Peter Michael Hamel wrote
of "a new auditory consciousness, capable of being applied
to all today's varieties of music -- whether Classical, Pop, Jazz,
Avant-Garde..." Because the contemporary listener now has
the entire panorama of the world's music available through recordings,
the application of this new consciousness to the music coming down
through the ages has reconnected us with certain psychic and emotional
experiences which have not been dated by the passage of time, but
remain relevant. The extraordinary popularity of pieces like the
Pachelbel "Canon in D" is perhaps the best example of
this, although entire musical genres such as the Gregorian chants
of medieval Europe, as well as traditional Japanese classical music,
Balinese gamelan, and other types of what is now called World Music
have come to the surface and enjoy renewed attention, especially
among New Age listeners.
Certainly a new auditory consciousness would be expected to create
new musical forms. Although the deepest roots of New Age music
are planted in some of the very oldest forms of music, there are
several aspects which deserve to be called new. In the categories
which follow, I've attempted to create a perspective for understanding
both the basic motivation and the psychological characteristics
of most of the music which is being called New Age. The descriptions
are in terms of the sound imagery, the content, and the overall
experience of the music.
[I acknowledge both the distaste for categories among many listeners
as well as the inherent problems of categorizing music. Categories
that are broad enough to include an entire era or dimension of
musical style or meaning are often of little descriptive value;
on the other hand, those which are too specific give no insight
into the overall musical direction of which the particular piece
is an example. The situation is further confused by the fact that
categories may be organized by historical epochs (Baroque), by
musical form (symphonic), by the means of production (electronic),
Also consider that the categories below describe the pure form
of each type of music. Many, perhaps a majority, of individual
works will fall somewhere between two categories or share the characteristics
of several. Still, in many years of living with this framework
and testing it against new material being released, I have found
very few exceptions.
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Space And Travel Music:
Celestial, Cosmic, & Terrestrial
This New Age sub-category has the effect of outward psychological
expansion. Celestial or cosmic music removes listeners from their
ordinary acoustical surroundings by creating stereo sound images
of vast, virtually dimensionless spatial environments. In a word — spacey.
Rhythmic or tonal movements animate the experience of flying,
floating, cruising, gliding, or hovering within the auditory space.
Terrestrial spacemusic employs natural outdoor ambiences — sounds
of water, birds, insects, thunder, etc. In either case, the major
effect of this music is to take the listener out of their body
or at least out of their normal sound environment. In a related
hardware development, the Walkman personal stereo phenomenon created
a visible class of "audio-isolated" individuals who express
their criticism of the environment by effectively removing themselves
from it sonically, and to some degree, psychologically.
Innerspace, Meditative, and Transcendental
This music promotes a psychological movement inward. It has been
precisely described by Peter Michael Hamel as "a contemplative
music...which is itself capable of being a vehicle, energy-form
and magic force for spiritual self absorption, which works by
virtue of its own inner laws, as soon as the listener learns
how to open himself totally to it. It carries him away — to
Transcendental innerspace music attempts to convey the listener
inward and upward to higher planes of consciousness, and is often
spoken of as "uplifting." Continuous drones or slowly
changing, endlessly repeated rhythmic structures (also popular
in so-called Minimalist music, although the composers only talk
about the technical characteristics of their work) as well as overall
ascending or descending tonal movements are common characteristics
of this subcategory.
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Cross-cultural fusions have been happening for centuries through
the medium of travel, as musicians have moved around the planet.
However, 20th century radio and recording technologies stimulated
an exponential acceleration of the process. The New Age music
audience has been especially receptive to this trend, welcoming
the opportunity to extend their psychological experience beyond
western cultural paradigms and immerse themselves in the musical
ideas and emotions of other worlds. Modified or derived forms
are usually more popular than the ethnic originals, but this
is not exclusive to the New Age field. From pop to classical,
cross-cultural influences are an important aspect of virtually
all areas of progressive contemporary music.
New Age Religious And Gospel
Though not as commercially successful as New Age instrumental
music, this category includes any vocal music regardless of style,
whose lyrics contain messages about spiritual beliefs or belief
systems. The impulse to share or broadcast one's belief system
to others — be
it religious, spiritual, or philosophical — appears to
be very deeply ingrained in human nature, and New Age gospel
in its purest form conveys the belief that we are entering a
new era for humanity. This is an extension of the ancient use
of music as a medium for the communication of important cultural
myths. At its best, such music can create a context for dramatic
internal experiences as the ideas expressed by the lyrics are
amplified by the emotional power of the music. Religious and
gospel music of all kinds, as well as New Age vocal music, continue
this tradition, stimulating the full gamut of emotional intensities
from lightly sentimental through cathartic to overwhelming.
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The Big Picture
Listeners with an analytical bent will naturally ask why should
there be a contemporary resurgence of music directed toward
relaxation, psychological expansion, inner experience, and statements
about metaphysical and religious beliefs? Granting that questions
like these cannot be given definitive answers, the following observations
may be helpful.
Stress: The constantly accelerating pace of urban life since the
1940's, driven by technological advances in communications and
accompanied by increasing levels of daytime noise "pollution" and
other distractions with an irritating effect on our sensibilities,
have increased the need for a soothing, masking, slow-paced sonic
reference. Of course, "Easy Listening" and "Beautiful
Music" FM stations as well as the infamous Muzak did just
this for years and succeeded in captivating large audiences in
the over 60 age group. Amazingly, as late as the 1970's, so-called
Beautiful Music was the most successful syndicated radio format,
and there were more stations broadcasting such music in the U.S.
than rock or pop.
But the programming of such stations and background services is
based mainly on "sweetened" instrumental reworkings of
popular songs. This approach, which apparently satisfies many older
people in their search for a comforting, undemanding nostalgia,
is generally alienating to the middle age audience, who prefer
the more intense and artistically significant original versions
(thus the "Golden Oldies" radio formats of the early
1980's) and is incomprehensible to the young, who have no tie to
the original songs and whose biosystems have not yet succumbed
to the effects of self-administered overstimulation.
With pop and rock presumably serving the needs of most of the
13 to 28 year old audience, a gap existed in music programming
for the more sensitive members of the 28 to 50 year age group which
was not being addressed by any of the existing radio music formats.
It is this age group in which stress-related diseases are most
pervasive and problematic. More or less by default, a portion of
the jazz and classical repertoire was called into service for these
listeners, but what was really needed was a contemporary music
which is physically relaxing, yet not emotionally trivial or devoid
of significant cultural meaning. This is the need that the quieter
forms of New Age music are attempting to fill. That it should have
existed in commercial broadcasting is remarkable, since this is
the demographic bracket which is most desirable to advertisers,
but even in the 90's radio exposure for this music was almost exclusively
on non-commercial stations.
Many aspects of today's culture have played
a role in supporting the use of music to influence awareness.
Drugs, meditation practices, psychological approaches to inner
work, and new religions have all contributed to the process. Individual
taste in music is inherently related to, and may play a part in,
When used for this purpose music acts as a nonverbal language
for conveying the experience of a virtually unlimited range of
psychic and emotional states. Conscious involvement with challenging
musical or sonic experiences can be a powerful method for accelerating
personal development. Although the lowest quality New Age music
has deservedly been criticized as "yuppie muzak", the
best of the genre invites substantial commitment and concentration
from the listener, falling into the realms normally associated
with serious listening.
But as Peter Michael Hamel points out, it is really not the same
kind of listening that one applies to classical, jazz, ethnic,
or other established types of music. The attention is both personal
and "holistic" — an awareness of individual emotional
response as well as the quality of the enveloping ambience being
created. This music is experienced primarily as a continuum of
spatial imagery and emotion, rather than as thematic musical relationships,
compositional ideas, or performance values.
Perhaps the current cross-cultural and trans-temporal melange
of musical directions is one emerging form of the global language
whose arrival has long been predicted by cultural visionaries.
Composer Jon Hassell calls it "Fourth World Music: classical
by structure, popular by textural appeal, global minded."
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