Made Simple

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 spirituality 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.

But 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 recall how quickly society accepted the idea of the "Age of Aquarius" in the 1960s. 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 musicians and the audience.

In his 1981 book Through Music to the Self 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 Classical 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), etc.]

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.

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/iPod 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 himself."

Transcendental innerspace music attempts to convey the listener inward and upward to higher planes of consciousness, and is often spoken of as "uplifting." Continuous "tone-color" transformations 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.

Cross-Cultural Fusions

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 creative 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 role 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.

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.

The programming of such stations and background services was based mainly on "sweetened" instrumental reworkings of popular songs. This approach, which apparently satisfied 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, rock and rap 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.

Personal Development

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, psychological growth.

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."

Copyright © 1988-2010 Stephen Hill


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