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The Influence of New Age Music: Its History, Effects and Future Essay

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New Age music is a unique musical form that traces its roots to the second half of the twentieth century. Since its origin, this music has divided itself into several different genres and numerous different performance formats. Some critics pan New Age music as lightweight and without a passionate edge. This musical form is growing in popularity despite the criticism.

            From its origin, New Age music was concerned with more than creating something that simply “sounds good”. By its nature, it is specifically designed to benefit overall human health.

These benefits can be physical, psychological and spiritual. Many listeners claim that the music helps to enhance their spiritual lives. Physical and psychological effects have actually been documented by an increasing amount of empirical evidence.

            New Age music is not always clearly definable, even among the artists themselves. This causes confusion in the record buying public. It is very much non-traditional in the music business sense. Its music is not written with the intent of entering any top 40 list.

Gaining exposure and maximizing revenue sources are two challenges New Age music will face in the twenty-first century.

            Is New Age music only the product and interest of a specific age, racial or cultural group as some critics suggest? How will this genre of music continue to grow and reach new audiences in the future? Is id just a fad, or does it have staying power? These are a few of the questions that will be answered in the twenty-first century. To this point, New Age music has shown remarkable staying power. It speaks to a sense of well-being that we all desire.

History of New Age Music

            Since the beginning of time people have sought ways to feel better. Feeling better usually involves lowering stress levels. For some, it goes farther. People have always sought ways to get in touch with their spirituality. For centuries, the traditional Western churches have provided a blueprint for this. The 1960s was an era when an increasing number of people questioned traditional beliefs. In the late 60s and 1970s, New Age music became one expression of that new perspective.

            The genesis of New Age music can be found in the development of new instruments and recording techniques during the 1960s. The 1970s ushered in a more inwardly-focused era in which many people tried to re-engage spirituality. Instead of traditional Western religions many turned to principles of mysticism and Eastern religion. During that era instrumental music was composed specifically for use during meditation and prayer.

            The larger movement of New Age is a multi-cultural combination of traditions, philosophies and religions. It could be seen as a reaction to dogma-rich traditional Western religions in favor of a more individualistic, exploring brand of spirituality. The branches of New Age philosophy extend into many sub-movements. In addition to music, the principles of New Age can be found in environmentalism, medicine and many other endeavors. This movement does not dominate all of what is referred to as New Age music but it was influential in the early years of the genre.

            The movement never rejected religion as a whole. Instead, it assembles elements from many different religions and customs. These elements always focus on positivity and self-actualization.

            The genre increased in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s. New Age radio stations were formed and New Age musicians became popular concert draws. Meanwhile, continued technological improvements allowed artists greater latitude to produce works that inspired, relaxed and helped millions to manage stress and increase their sense of well being.

            New Age differs from other musical genre in one specific way. Those going to hear a rock band expect to hear guitars and drums. When listening to a classical recording one might expect to hear a piano, orchestra or string ensemble. In that sense other genre are defined in a large way by their instrumentation.

            New Age music encompasses a wide range of formats. Yanni and John Tesh are keyboardists. Enya is a vocalist. Mannheim Steamroller is an ensemble. While New Age artists do specialize in specific instrumental formats; the genre as a whole is not defined by a “typical” format. Instead, the music is defined specifically by the feelings it strives to create.

            The divisions of New Age music are not always wholly distinct from one another. As a result some artists’ music is classified as new age despite protestations to the contrary by the artist. Enya is an example of one such artist who resists the “New Age” label. None the less her music has been adopted by many New Age listeners. In fact, she has been awarded with a Grammy in the New Age category.

            Many radio stations play a blend of New Age and “Smooth Jazz” or Jazz Fusion styles. This leads many listeners to believe that New Age is a direct offshoot of jazz which, in fact, it is not. Other forms such as World Music and Electronica also commonly fall under the definition of New Age.

            Pioneers of New Age include such composers as Holger Czvilay, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno. These composers blended myriad musical influences with emerging synthesizer technology to create the “ambient” sound. This sound was not meant to invade the consciousness in the style of hard rock or pop music. Instead it uses pleasurable natural sounds, instrumental riffs and synthesizers to create a mellow, relaxing mood.

            New Age music has become closely associated with Electronic music. New Age composers are both pioneers of electronics technology and users of older technology in new ways. Guitars pianos and other traditional instruments are often electronically adapted to produce the desired sounds.

            Some New Age artists subscribe to Eastern, Native American or other theological and spiritual constructs. The extent to which they promote these ideas within their music varies widely. Other New Age artists are entirely secular. They believe that the music itself simply has innate positive qualities, or that it can encourage these qualities within people.

            The larger goal of New Age music has been present at every stage of its development. The music is designed to influence or encourage the human mind toward a low-stress thought pattern. In the long term that thought pattern has the potential to alter physiological and psychological health in profound positive ways.

            It is not surprising that New Age music emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. This was a particularly turbulent era in world history. The “hippie” experiments in mind expansion and communal living had failed. People then began to look inward for solace, meaning and encouragement. As a result New Age was not a religion unto itself. By its nature, it leaves each individual to construct their own internal religion and define their own spirituality.

Formats, Artists and Audience

            New Age music is both a unique and diverse art form. At the time of its emergence it was radically different than any other music. At the same time it drew on other music forms more liberally than almost any other music. Its influences are not limited to any particular genre, era of history or performance style. New Age is an eclectic mix of old musical forms produced in a new way.

            This music is often repetitive and hypnotic in nature. It uses non-dissonant modal harmonies and nature sounds such as birds chirping or water rushing over a waterfall. New Age songs, by their nature are not limited to the standard three minute track as used in popular music. Individual New Age tracks may last a half an hour or longer.

            New Age music is experimental in terms of instrumentation. It may use guitar, piano and other traditional instruments, but it also features instruments less familiar to Western audiences. Digitally produced effects and instrumental sounds are heavily used. “New sounds and effects are also discovered by building new equipment or modifying existing instruments and gear. Sometimes innovative and groundbreaking, this style can also be an exercise in electronics for its own sake” (Real.com, 2008).

            The majority of New Age music is non-vocal but an increasing number of artists are using vocal effects such as chanting or spiritual readings. Some New Age singers, like Enya, have gained substantial popularity in recent years. Four major formats comprise most New Age music: Space and Travel music, Innerspace, Meditative and Transcendental, Cross Cultural Fusions and New Age Religious and Gospel (Hill, 2007).

            Space and travel music is designed to take the listener on an auditory trip. As Hill describes:“the major effect of this music is to take the listener out of their body or at least out of their normal sound environment” (Hill, 2007). This type of New Age music is essentially a form of escapism. It is a way the listener can safely explore the universe through music.

            Innerspace, Meditative, and Transcendental is not as escapist as travel music. Instead, it encourages the listener toward self-exploration. This type of New Age music is most closely associated with principles of the larger new age movement. In short, its purpose is to “convey the listener inward and upward to higher planes of consciousness” (Hill, 2007).

            Cross-Cultural Fusions have become extremely popular in recent years. These fusions may combine traditional songs or rhythms with modern instruments and production techniques. These fusions create a sense of serenity while exposing listeners to the creations of foreign or ancient cultures.

            New Age Religious And Gospel is specifically written to inspire believers of a particular religion. According to Hill, New Age gospel in its purest form conveys the belief that we are entering a new era for humanity” (2007). This type of music fills a need for churches struggling to recruit younger members who do not necessarily identify with traditional hymns. New Age Religious music is highly positive and lacks the convicting elements of many traditional hymns.

            Technological advances make many performance formats possible. Formats range from a lone keyboardist to a large orchestra with accompaniment of digital instruments and sound effects. Nature sounds used on a recording can now be easily reproduced in concert, along with most other studio effects.

            The core of the New Age listening audience are “greens” – people who live an environmentally cautious lifestyle. They are often upper middle-class and well educated. The core audience is predominantly white in the United States but varies widely throughout the world. The potential market demographic in the United States is estimated at about 70 million persons (Werkhoven, 1997). 

Psychological and Physiological effects

            In its original conception New Age music was more concerned with creating specific feelings than other music. It is a more in-depth approach to composition than in most popular music. There is evidence that the music achieves its goal in that regard. It is difficult to tell, though, to what extent it is effective and in what specific ways.

            New Age music is typically associated with calm feelings of well-being. The music may be related to the ideals of the larger New Age music, but this is not necessarily so. Many listeners use the music in combination with other stress management techniques. It is commonly used in music therapy as well as providing a relaxing atmosphere for such activities as meditation, exercise, yoga and massage.

            Unrelieved anxiety is a problem for millions around the globe. Far from being benign this anxiety translates into physiological effects and potentially cause long-term damage to the heart and nervous systems. Nursing interventions that use music therapy as a primary treatment method have shown success (Barbrook, 1990). Music can positively effect mood, anxiety levels and doubt about the future.

            There is an emerging body of evidence that music, in general, has healing power. The psychological benefits are most clear. The following is typical of the evidence of the psychological benefits of music:Nursing interventions using music therapy or sensory information among patients with coronary artery disease has resulted in anxiety reduction” (Barbrook, 1990). Further studies have found that New Age music can be particularly beneficial in this regard.

            There is also evidence that the act of learning music helps brain power. Schellenberg, for example, found that “music lessons cause small increases in IQ, but comparable nonmusical activities do not have similar consequences” (2004). New Age music attempts to capitalize on this phenomena by encouraging reflection or exploration of thoughts outside the normal realm of life.

            For some, the psychological benefits translate directly into physical benefits. It is well known that decreases in anxiety and increases in feelings of serenity can be associated with improved physical health. The extent to which New Age music is causal in improved physical health is difficult to measure, however.

            Playing and listening to music are healthy activities. There is also evidence that they increase our brain power. But why? Science can explain part of the phenomenon. According to Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):

            Music pushes buttons for language ability (with which music overlaps in

            many ways); it pushes buttons in the auditory cortex, the system on surface

            pleasure seeking activity…and the motor control system that injects rhythm

            into the muscles…

                                                                        (Levitin, 2006)

            Music is a pleasure seeking activity. At their core many of the other actions we take in life are pleasure-seeking. Human beings are instinctively driven to seek pleasure. It is often this pursuit that triggers the development of many of the most important parts of the brain.

            Theoretically, any music can produce the serotonin release that causes pleasurable feelings, speeds healing and stimulates learning. New Age music is different than other genre in that it attempts to focus and extend the feeling of well-being. Nature sounds, for example, trigger primal sensations that have been in human beings from the very beginning. They bring us to a place we know instinctively. We are transported away from the physical home and into the home of the “soul”. When physical benefits do occur, they serve to reinforce the thought process encouraged by the music. A person might then feel a new sense of empowerment..

            Proponents of New Age philosophies and music have lobbied for more mainstream acceptance of their inclusion in medical treatment. Because therapies based on these tenets are not yet proven to the satisfaction of the medical establishment they are still treated as “alternative” therapies. Some critics warn of the public trend toward therapies emphasizing New Age music and philosophy, while at the same time acknowledging their probable benefits:

            Because New Age healing is based upon individual feelings it is inappropriate

            …when applied to such matters of public policy as science, technology, law or

            economics. But so long as New Age reasoning stays away from these objective

            areas, its subjective evaluations may have great personal value.

                                                                        (Charlton, 2002)

            As with latent physiological effects, latent psychological effects can be hard to measure. Some reasonable extrapolations can be made, however. New Age music is designed to reduce stress. In doing this, it may prevent any number of stress-related behaviors such as drug abuse, road rage or family violence. It may also help someone who feels lost or discombobulated in the daily minutia of life to center themselves and constructively move forward with life.

            Happy relaxed and well-centered people often live longer than those who are not. People need tools, in the psychological sense, to accomplish this state of well-being. Many listeners claim that New Age music is one such effective tool.

Developing New Audiences

            Future success for the New Age genre relies upon reaching untapped markets and taking advantage of all possible revenue streams. The music market is more competitive than ever. It will take a shrewd approach for producers and artists to make viable a form of music that is still not seen as “mainstream”.

            A talented array of New Age artists continue to bring the music to a worldwide audience. Its growth seems to have reached a plateau, however. In part, this can be blamed on an incomplete understanding of this genre by critics and the general public.

            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.

                                                                         (Hill, 2007)

            Interestingly, the New Age music industry may be hindering its own growth by its acceptance of some traditional industry practices. The vast majority of New Age artists and producers are men. Women are under represented in the industry and undeserved as potential customers.

            According to Colley, “One contributing factor may be the continuing under-valuation of women’s music” (2003). The worldwide success of artists such as Enya has shown that this under-valuation is unfounded. Currently the industry is not mining potential talent and customers to the extent that it could be.

            Today’s music market is dominated by the youth demographic. They buy the lions share of CDs, DVDs and digital recordings. In order for the industry to survive, it will have to address the needs of this audience. It takes imagination, care and perseverance to bring the under-25s into the world of musical modernity” (MacMillan, 2008).

            In that vein, organizations such as the National Youth Orchestra have begun to commission and perform New Age music. Young, computer-savvy listeners expect to be able to access music on the go. Some New Age and classical artists are taking advantage of relatively new outlets, such as podcasts, to deliver their music to listeners.

            Fortunately, costs for such releases are relatively low. Artists and producers may be able to offer a substantial amount of free content in an attempt to lure future customers. YouTube and other sharing sites offer a potential launching pad for new artists. Some in the classical industry have realized that there is a reluctance of younger audiences to enter concert halls for classical performances. The same is very likely true of New Age music. Concert audiences for New Age are predominantly from the over 40 demographic.

            The tools are available for New Age to combat the negativity of the critics and bring its music to a larger, younger and more diverse audience. New Age will have to embrace the future in a marketing and business sense the same way its early composers did musically.

            Promoting the health benefits of New Age will always work with a small subset of the listening public. To draw new audiences, however, it will have to widen the approach and find a way to relate to young people..New Age music exists in an incredibly competitive music market. If it is to compete in the future it must do so in a pluralist and eclectic culture” (MacMillan, 2008).

            For most people, New Age music is not likely to replace other genre. If promoted effectively it can exist as an addition to the music library, a “go-to” music at times when people are feeling stressed. If continued research shows that New Age music has clear benefits new markets could also be opened in the traditional medicine and holistic health fields.

            Opportunities also exist in a wide array of other formats.. For example, museums and other institutions seeking to create multimedia experiences for patrons have used African and other soundscapes to create the most realistic experience possible. This creates a ready-made opportunity to sell the soundscapes through gift shops and on the internet.

Analysis and Conclusion

            The early manifestation of New Age music played upon the philosophical concept that we, as humans, have become too separated from nature. Additionally, this separation has led to a lack of reverence. We take for granted what nature offers us. According to Zukav, “Our species and the earth form a mutual response system” (1990). We were created as one with the earth. Failing to recognize this is against our own collective nature.

            It is that philosophical perspective that underpinned the beginnings of New Age music. New Age philosophy and music are about finding personal power and our place in an incredibly chaotic world. If we could somehow regain that reverence for nature “our journey from powerlessness to authentic empowerment would continue” (Zukov, 1990).

            This may be done consciously or unconsciously by the New Age music listener. For some the music is an important tool for the exploration of spirituality, physical and psychological health. For others, the music is simply a good way to relax. .

            The music called New Age and the philosophy of New Age are related today in a more limited way. Some of the early New Age composers created their music with philosophy at the forefront of the creative process. More often, Today’s New Age music is created for listening pleasure and only tangentially related to environmentalism and other social and philosophical movements. New Age music has become more corporate-driven and has divided itself into a number of sub-genre.

            Corporatization has exposed the music to more people and created a more diverse fan base. Only a small minority would now describe themselves as “New Age thinkers”.

New Age music, at its best, is fascinating and mind-expanding. It is designed, more specifically than other types of music, to benefit human well-being.

            The degree to which it achieves this is not necessarily measurable. Many listeners swear by the music dismissing criticism from the “mainstream”.Against the odds the music has developed a loyal audience, having spread beyond just those who subscribe to New Age philosophies.

            The audience for New Age is still relatively limited. Tremendous untapped markets still exist. In other words, the industry has room to grow. New Age music has struck a consonant chord in a world full of dissonance. Its emergence met a deep-seated need within humans to return to a simpler state of being.

            The music itself is not designed to make “hits”. This makes maintaining a place in the extremely competitive music industry more difficult. The music also has been victimized by a certain stigma. In a world that has become used to hard hitting, hard edged music, the mellow tones of New Age can be a tough sell.

            The music has a built-in asset in the fact that the pressures of daily human life will never end. As long as people seek out methods to achieve peace and well-being in their lives the music of New Age has a large potential audience.

            The New Age industry has something it did not have in its early years – viable stars. Enya, Mannheim Steamroller, John Tesh and others continue to sell millions of recordings. New Age also has the advantage of being viable world wide. Therefore, there are always audiences to target.

             The advent of the digital age has hurt some traditional artists. The sales of non-digital formats is dropping precipitously. Meanwhile, New Age music is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this trend. New Age is already a progressively electronic form of music. The industry and the musicians should be eager to engage the new technologies and use them to their benefit.

            Does New Age achieve its original goal? Does it better our physiological and psychological health? Does it increase our spirituality? Millions say yes to all these questions. The spirituality engaged by New Age music is in the eye of the beholder. In the same way, the physical and mental benefits are also in the eye of the beholder. Science may not be able to give definitive answers – but definitive answers are not needed. New Age music clearly gives benefits to its listeners that have kept it a popular art form for decades.




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