New-age music is a genre of music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism. It is used by listeners for yoga, massage, meditation, reading as a method of stress management to bring about a state of ecstasy rather than trance, or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments, and is associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality.
New-age music includes both acoustic forms, featuring instruments such as flutes, piano, acoustic guitar and a wide variety of non-Western acoustic instruments, and electronicforms, frequently relying on sustained synth pads or long sequencer-based runs. Vocal arrangements were initially rare in the genre, but as it has evolved vocals have become more common, especially those featuring Native American-, Sanskrit-, or Tibetan-influenced chants, or lyrics based on mythology such as Celtic legends.
There is no exact definition of new-age music. An article in Billboard magazine in 1987 commented that “New Age music may be the most startling successful non-defined music ever to hit the public consciousness”. Many consider it to be an umbrella term for marketing rather than a musical category, and to be part of a complex cultural trend.
New-age music was influenced by a wide range of artists from a variety of genres. Tony Scott’s Music for Zen Meditation (1964) is considered to be the first new-age recording. Paul Horn (beginning with 1968’s Inside) was one of the important predecessors. Irv Teibel’s Environments series (1969–79) featured natural soundscapes, tintinnabulation, and “Om” chants and were some of the first publicly available psychoacoustic recordings. Steven Halpern’s 1975 Spectrum Suite was a key work that began the new-age music movement.
New-age music is defined more by the use and effect or feeling it produces rather than the instruments and genre used in its creation; it may be acoustic, electronic, or a mixture of both. New-age artists range from solo or ensemble performances using classical-music instruments ranging from the piano, acoustic guitar, flute or harp to electronic musical instruments, or from Eastern instruments such as the sitar, tabla, and tamboura. There is also a significant overlap of sectors of new-age music with ambient music, classical music, jazz, electronica, world music, chillout, space music, pop music and others.
The two definitions typically associated with the new-age genre are:
- New-age music with an ambient sound that has the explicit purpose of aiding meditation and relaxation, or aiding and enabling various alternative spiritual practices, such as alternative healing, yoga practice, guided meditation, chakra auditing, and so on. The proponents of this definition are almost always musicians who create their music expressly for these purposes. To be useful for meditation music needs to have repetitive dynamic and texture, without sudden loud chords and improvisation which could disturb the meditator. It is minimalist in conception, and thus are mostly instrumentalist rather than vocalist musicians. Subliminal messages are also used in new-age music, and the use of music instruments along the natural sounds of the animals (like whales, wolves and eagles) and nature (waterfalls, ocean waves, rain) is also popular.Prominent artists who create new-age music expressly for healing or meditation include Irv Teibel, Paul Horn, Deuter, Steven Halpern, Paul Winter, Lawrence Ball (who in the 1970s was one of the first to combine peaceful music with the sounds of nature), Dean Evenson, Karunesh, Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Bhagavan Das, Snatam Kaur and so on.
- Music which is found in the new-age sections of record stores. This is largely a definition of practicality, given the breadth of music that is classified as “new age” by retailers who are often less interested in finely grained distinctions between musical styles than are fans of those styles. Music which falls into this definition is usually music which cannot be easily classified into other, more common definitions, but can contain almost any kind of music—it is more a marketing slogan rather than musical category.
Debate and criticism
However, it is often noted that “New-age music” is a mere popular designation which successfully sells records. J. Gordon Melton argued it does not refer to a specific genre of music, but to music which is used in therapeutic or other new-age purposes. Kay Gardner considered that the label “New Age” is considered an inauthentic commercial intention of the so-called new-age music. She commented that “a lot of New Age music is schlock” and how due to records sales everyone with a home studio put in some sounds of crickets, oceans, or rivers, as a guarantee of sales. What started as ambient mood music related with New Age activity, became a term for a musical conglomeration of jazz, folk, rock, ethnic, classical, and electronic, among other music styles, with the former and markedly different musical and theoretical movement.
Thus under the umbrella term, some consider that the Mike Oldfield’s progressive rock album Tubular Bells (1973) became one of the first albums to be referred to under the genre description of New Age. Others consider that music by the Greek composer Vangelis, and general modern jazz-rock fusion, exemplify the progressive side of new-age music.Other artists included are Jean-Michel Jarre (even though his electronic excursions predate the term), Andreas Vollenweider, George Winston, Mark Isham, Michael Hedges, Shadowfax, Mannheim Steamroller, Kitarō, Yanni, Enya, Clannad, Enigma among others.
However, many musicians and composers dismiss the labeling of their music as “New age”. When the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album was first created in 1987, its first winner, Andreas Vollenweider, said “I don’t have any intention to label my music… It’s ridiculous to give a name to anything that is timeless”. Peter Bryant, music director of WHYY-FM (90.9) and host of a New-age program, noted that “I don’t care for the term… New-age has a negative connotation… In the circles I come in contact with, people working in music, ‘new-age’ is almost an insult”, that it refers to “very vapid, dreamy kinds of dull music… with no substance or form or interest”, and that the term has “stuck”.
Ron Goldstein, president of Private Music, agreed with such a standpoint, and explained that “Windham Hill was the hub of this whole thing. Because of that association, New-age has come to be perceived as this West Coast thing”. However, the label managing director Sam Sutherland, argued that even founders of Windham Hill, William Ackerman and Anne Robinson, “shied away from using any idiomatic or generic term at all. It’s always seemed a little synthetic”, and as a company they stopped making any kind of deliberate protests to the use of the term simply because it was inappropriate. Both Goldstein and Sutherland concluded that the tag has helped move merchandise, and that new-age music will be absorbed into the general body of pop music within a few years from 1987.
The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles noted that “new-age music” absorbed other music styles in more softer form, but those same well defined styles don’t need the new-age category, and that “new-age music” resembles other music because it is aimed as a marketing niche—to be a “formula show” designated for urban “ultra-consumers” as status accessory, that the Andean, Asian and African traditional music influences invoke the sense of “cosmopolitanism”, while nature in the album artwork and sound the “connection to unspoiled landscapes”.
As described in this article, the borders of this umbrella genre are not well defined; however music retail stores will include artists in the “new-age” category even if the artists belong to different genre, and themselves use different names for their style of music. Here are some other terms used instead of “new-age”:
Kay Gardner called the original new-age music “healing music” or “women’s spirituality”. Paul Winter, who is considered a new-age music pioneer, also dismissed the term, and preferred “earth music”.
The term “instrumental music” or “contemporary instrumental” can include artists that do not use electronic instruments in their music, such as solo pianist David Lanz. Similarly, pianists such as Yanni and Bradley Joseph both use this term as well, although they use keyboards to incorporate layered orchestral textures into their compositions. Yanni has distinguished the music genre from the spiritual movement bearing the same name. The term “contemporary instrumental music” was also suggested by Andreas Vollenweider, while “adult alternative” by Gary L. Chappell, which was the term by which Billboard called the new-age and world-music album charts.
The concept arose with the involvement of professional musicians in the New-Age movement. Initially, it was of no interest to the musical industry, so the musicians and related staff founded their own small independent recording businesses. Sales reached significant numbers in unusual outlets such as bookstores, gift stores, health-food stores and boutiques, as well as by direct mail. With the demand of a large market, the major recording companies began promoting new-age music in the 1980s.
New-age music was influenced by a wide range of artists from a variety of genres—for example, folk-instrumentalists John Fahey and Leo Kottke, minimalists Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass, classical avant-garde Daniel Kobialka, synthesizer performers Brian Eno, and jazz artists Keith Jarrett, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paul Horn (beginning with 1968’s Inside) and Pat Metheny.
Tony Scott’s Music for Zen Meditation (1964) is considered to be the first new-age recording, but initially it was popular mostly in California, and was not sold nationally until the 1980s. Another school of meditation music arose among the followers of Rajneesh; Deuter recorded D (1971) and Aum (1972), which mixed acoustic and electronic instruments with sounds of the sea. Kay Gardner’s song Lunamuse (1974) and first recording Mooncircles (1975), which were a synthesis of music, sexuality and Wiccan spirituality, were “new-age music before it got to be new-age music”. Her A Rainbow Path (1984) embraced Halpern’s theory of healing music from that time with women’s spirituality, and she became one of the most popular new-age sacred-music artists.
Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia/Earth Mass (1982) is described as “a masterpiece of New Age ecological consciousness that celebrates the sacredness of land, sky, and sea”. His work on the East Coast is considered to be one of the most important musical expressions of new-age spirituality. On the West Coast, musicians concentrated more on music for healing and meditation. The most notable early work was Steven Halpern’s Spectrum Suite(1975), the musical purpose of which was described as to “resonate specific areas of the body… it quiets the mind and body”, and whose title relates “to the seven tones of the musical scale and the seven colors of the rainbow to the seven etheric energy sources (chakras) in our bodies”. In the 1970s his music work, and the theoretical book Tuning the Human Instrument (1979), pioneered the contemporary practice of musical healing in the United States.
In 1976 the record label Windham Hill Records was founded, with an initial $300 investment, and would gross over $26 million annually ten years later. Over the years many record labels were formed that embraced or rejected the new-age designation, such as Narada Productions, Private Music, Music West, Lifestyle, Audion, Sonic Atmospheres, Living Music, Terra (Vanguard Records), Novus Records (which mainly recorded jazz music), FM (CBS Masterworks) and Cinema (Capitol Records).
Between the intentional extremes of the West and East Coast are some of the most successful new-age artists, like George Winston and R. Carlos Nakai. Winton’s million-selling December (1982), released by Windham Hill Records, was highly popular. Most of Nakai’s work, with first release Changes in 1983, consists of improvised songs in native North American style. During the 1990s, his music became virtual anthems for new-age spirituality.
In 1981, Tower Records in Mountain View, California added a “new age” bin. By 1985, independent and chain record retail stores were adding sections for new age, and major labels began showing interest in the genre, both through acquisition of some existing new-age labels such as Paul Winter’s Living Music and through signing of so-called “new-age” artists such as Japanese electronic composer Kitarō and American crossover jazzmusician Pat Metheny, both signed by Geffen Records. Most of the major record labels accepted new age artists by the beginning of the next year. In the late 1980s the umbrella genre was the fastest-growing genre with significant radio broadcast. It was seen as an attractive business due to low recording costs.
From 1982 to 1989, working on his own and with Lura Jane Geiger, Adam Geiger, New Age Composer/Keyboardist, produced and sold a series of cassette tapes of New Age music on the LuraMedia recording label.
Stephen Hill founded the new-age radio show Hearts of Space in 1973. In 1983, was picked up by NPR for syndication to 230 affiliates nationally, and year later was started a record label Hearts of Space Records. On Valentine’s Day in 1987, the former Los Angeles rock radio station KMET changed to a full-time new-age music format with new call letters KTWV, branded as The Wave. During The Wave’s new-age period, management told the station employees to refer to The Wave as a “mood service” rather than a “radio station”. DJs stopped announcing the titles of the songs, and instead, to maintain an uninterrupted mood, listeners could call a 1–800 phone number to find out what song was playing. News breaks were also re-branded and referred to as “wave breaks”. Other new-age-specialty radio programs included Forest’s Musical Starstreams and John Diliberto’s Echoes. Most major cable television networks have channels that play music without visuals, including channels for New age, such as the “Soundscapes” channel on Music Choice. The two satellite radio companies Sirius Satellite Radio & XM Satellite Radio each had their own channels that played new-age music. Sirius—Spa (Sirius XM) (73), XM—Audio Visions (77). When the two merged in November 2008 and became SiriusXM, the Spa name was retained for the music channel with the majority of Audio Vision’s music library being used.
In 1987 was formed the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album, while in 1988 the Billboard’s New Age weekly charts. In 1989 was held the first international New-Age Music Conference. By 1989, there were over 150 small independent record labels releasing new-age music, while new-age and adult-alternative programs were carried on hundreds of commercial and college radio stations in the U.S., and over 40 distributors were selling new-age music through mail-order catalogs.
In the 1990s many small labels of new-age style music emerged in Japan, but for this kind of instrumental music the terms “relaxing” or “healing” music were more popular. Enigma’s Sadeness (Part I) became an international hit, reaching number one in 24 countries including UK, also number five on the US Billboard Hot 100, selling over 5 million worldwide. At the time Holland was the home of two leading European new-age labels—Oreade and Narada Media. Oreade reported that in 1997 the latest trend was “angelic” music, while from Narada Media predicted that the genre will develop in the direction of world music (with Celtic, Irish and African influences).In 1995 some “new-age” composers like Kitarō, Suzanne Ciani and Patrick O’Hearn moved from major to independent record labels due to lack of promotion, diminishing sales or limited freedom of creativity.
In 2001 Windham Hill celebrated its 25th anniversary, Narada and Higher Octave Music continued to move into world and ethno-techno music, and Hearts of Space Records were bought by Valley Entertainment. Enya’s “Only Time” peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while the album A Day Without Rain at #2 on the Billboard 200, being the number one new-age artist of the year.
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