New Age Music History

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will chart the development of New Age music and place the genre within the larger context of the New Age movement. Significant precursors will be discussed and important New Age artists will be detailed.

Defining New Age Music

New Age music emerged as a distinctive genre in the 1970s and grew to its height of popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s. New Age music is typically abstract and soothing, often incorporating natural sounds like wind, birds, or the sound of crashing ocean waves. Frequently, New Age music is intended to accompany meditation, massage therapy, or yoga. Atmosphere is generally emphasized over form or traditional notions of musicality.

The New Age Movement in Context

In order to understand the significance of New Age music, it is necessary to understand the genre within the larger context of the New Age movement. The New Age movement is a loose conglomeration of alternative spiritualities and metaphysical religions that emerged in the 1960s. The roots of the New Age movement go back further, however, at least into the occult and new religious movements of the 19th century. Theosophy, New Thought, and Transcendentalism, among many others, attempted to incorporate notions drawn from Buddhism and Hinduism with Western occultism. Many new religions argued for a correspondence between consciousness and the physical world; that how one thought or felt had consequences in the real world.

By the beginning of the 20th century, new religions that utilized techniques drawn from Eastern religions, such as meditation or alternative medicine, were spreading across the United States. The 1960s saw a huge proliferation of alternative spiritualities, as baby boomers who were disillusioned with the conservative American culture of the 1950s sought spiritual fulfillment outside of Judeo-Christianity.

By the 1970s, large numbers of people were practicing meditation, crystal healing, yoga, macrobiotic diets, astrology, and all manner of alternative medicine. These practices and activities needed a soundtrack; a form of music that was less aggressive than rock music that could serve as soothing background music for New Age activities.

Related Genres and Precursors

The 1960s and 1970s also saw a huge explosion of experimental and electronic music that was highly influential for New Age music. In Germany at the time, experimental music flourished within the so-called Kraut rock scene. In particular, the synthesizer-based electronic music of Tangerine Dream served as an important influence on what would become New Age music.

Brian Eno, 1974

In Britain, ambient music composed by Brian Eno during the 1970s was a deeply important forerunner of New Age music. Eno's classic recording 'Ambient 1: Music for Airports' provided just the kind of abstract, pretty, formlessness that many New Age spiritual seekers were looking for.

In the United States, contemporary classical musicians like Philip Glass and Terry Riley were challenging traditional conservative notions of what Western art music should sound like. Although far more complex than most New Age music, the experiments of Glass and Riley pointed the way for many New Age musicians.

The Emergence and Development of New Age Music

It is difficult to ascertain exactly where New Age music started, as the genre has as much to do with style, visual aesthetics, and social context as it does with sound. As cultural theorist Simon Frith has noted, packaging and marketing were as important as the music itself. In New Age book stores, health food stores, and alternative healing seminars, cassettes, and later CDs, were sold by artists with a New Age spiritual bent.

Steven Halpern's numerous recordings were early examples of New Age music. Halpern often included guided meditation and other therapeutic techniques in his music. This practical, spiritual function of New Age music is significant. New Age music is often meant to aid in spiritual practice, relaxation, or anxiety relief, rather than function simply as a work of art.

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