Perspectives on New Age Music

An Immersive Constellation of Sound

Curtis Emery · 02/28/24

Far out tones, otherworldly pulsing, inner-worldly resonance, the bubbling of a stream, the babbling of a synthesizer filter, the way vocal chords fall into ancient frequencies, the twang of string on sacred wood

When trying to note the single most obvious trait of New Age music, many colorful phrases come to mind. It is easy to point it out when you hear it because it sounds so different from anything else. In fact, it is that very "squishiness" that makes it so resistant to any one single defining sonic characteristic. When we think of new age music, artists like Enya, Yanni, and George Winston may come to mind—or hey, maybe we just think of Celtic folk music or the droning sounds piped into our doctor’s office or the spa.

The official definition of the genre is “instrumental music characterized by light melodic harmonies, improvisation, and sound produced from the natural world, intended to promote serenity.” However, the variety of reactions to new age music speak to how sprawling the genre truly is—and highlights the haze of mystery that has surrounded the genre since its inception. Just what is new age music, exactly?

So What is New Age Music?

The closer we tune in on one aspect of the genre, the more variation seems possible—and in a genre marked by sound designers and deep thought diving practitioners, you can be certain that each creator has found their niche within that spectrum. It is a genre which contains multitudes across the globe and across time—and it has an historically scattered plot charted through the music industry.

New age music can be instrumental, and it can be ambient. It can also be vocal, acoustic, electro-acoustic, and electronic. Composed on cutting edge synthesizers or scried from round the edge of mindful crystal bowls, there is no specific voice but rather a shared breath. The sound, while unique to each composer and performer, comes second to the intent behind the music.

“The place of pure potential is the place between notes, between thoughts,” noted Steven Halpern, one of the founding practitioners of new age music.

While not always overtly spiritual, the composition and performance of new age music is rooted in the idea that sound can take the human spirit elsewhere—sometimes meditative, relaxing, or de-stressing; other times sending the listener inside themselves, using the generative power of imagination and the turned-on brain.

Tony Scott and the Early Origins of New Age Music

The genesis of new age music could be traced back to a knowledge exchange from the jazz scene of the West and the traditional sounds and practices of the East. However, in the context of new age music, the simple distance from one side of the globe to the other is nothing in comparison to the pursuits of the human imagination and the sheer scope of experience captured by the genre, which feels cosmic in its constellation of individuals driving at that something under the surface.

Early American jazz clarinetist Tony Scott is remembered as one of the first contributors to the form of new age music, whose release of Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys on The Verve Music Group in 1964 is often cited as the first new age music release.

Scott rose to recognition in the 1950s as a top jazz clarinet player in New York City. He collaborated with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and others, and brought his acute jazz instincts to bebop and post-bop. As a player, Scott was drawn to the clarinet-forward sound of early bebop, which allowed him to use his immense talent as a jazz performer to bring improvisational clarinet to this new genre. However, Scott’s stay in the world of bebop (and NYC) would come to an end by 1960.

The shift in bebop away from clarinet towards saxophone and trumpet, a shifting jazz scene in NYC, and the loss of friends loosened the city’s grip on Scott, and in 1958, after meeting Japanese jazz writer Mata Sagawa at The Newport Jazz Festival, Scott’s sights would be set to the East, prompting Tony to move to Japan. In 1959, Scott would embark on a journey that would change the trajectory of his career and initiate a culture shift which would open up the world of new age music that we know today.

From 1959 to 1964 Scott lived a nomadic life: traveling around Asia, exploring new types of music, and diving deep into the traditional sounds of the area. Tony would go on to play in Hindu temples and seek out traditional musicians, experts of their classic instruments and true masters of their ideologies. Collaborating with these musicians, monks, and minds, and bringing the improvisational techniques of jazz to sacred sounds of the East, Scott gradually ebbed toward the genesis of new age music.

In fact, it was his last visit to Japan in 1964 when Scott would realize his vision, bringing his journey to a triumphant summit. As if the culmination of two separate story lines, Tony Scott would come together with koto player Shinichi Yuize (whom Scott had prompted to improvise publicly for the first time back in 1959) as well as shakuhachi artist Hōzan Yamamoto to create Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys—the inaugural presentation of what would define new age music as a genre.

Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys is an improvised album which celebrates traditional Japanese music with two iconic Japanese and Chinese instruments, but is wholly new. Truly unique in its composition, it produced a meditative, levitating experience with the unexpected twists and inspired moments of improvised performance borrowed from jazz.

The album was released on Verve and sold 500,000 copies. Tony Scott was able to use the impact of this release to produce Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys (after Indian raga clarinetists S.R. Kamble and V. Narasinhalu Wadvati [1968]), and the lesser distributed Music for Voodoo Meditation (1972), based on his travels to Africa and his studies of local traditional tribal musics. The stage was set for meditative instrumental sounds, and while this new type of music would begin by looking to the East for their enriched sound-based traditions, the instinct to let music transport the listener to more contemplative, enlightened states was finally set free in a way that would not only open the market for like musical projects, but open the ears of modern listeners to the possibilities of new age music.

Steven Halpern and New Age Music in the Early 1970s

The early seventies would become a fertile landscape for new age music proper, as early electronic music helped to set the stage for cosmic sounds. Jean-Michel Jarre’s electronic music in the early 1970s helped establish the motion towards this sound. Radio shows like Inner Visions and Music from the Hearts of Space focused on similar electronic music, then commonly referred to as “space music.”

In 1976, jazz musician turned experimental artist, Steven Halpern, would release his first new age album Spectrum Suite, which like Scott’s Music for Zen Meditation, is now considered one of the very first definitive albums of the genre—released at a turning point when the many names of the new age music sound (space music, new age ambient, Eastern influenced meditative jazz, etc.) were to be consolidated under the official moniker for the genre: new age music.

Steven Halpern began his music career as a jazz guitarist and trumpet player in the 1960s New York City jazz scene. At the University of Buffalo in 1965, Halpern was turned on to magical thinking and the imaginative possibilities of jazz and improvisation. As a music student, Halpern would often find himself hanging with the poets and creative writers of the burgeoning writing program at the university. Under the mentorship of poets like Robert Creeley, Jack Clarke, and Albert Glover, Halpern’s spiritual journey and creative journey would become intertwined, the instincts of jazz and poetry and Halpern’s own creative voice laying down the foundation for his career as a sound healer and recording artist.

Ostensibly done with the East coast, Halpern headed to California where he would continue his work with "anti-frantic alternative" music. Engaging with other like-minded spiritual thinkers and artistically inclined peers at the Human Potential Movement’s Esalen Institute gave him the opportunity to take his relaxing, meditative compositions to the next level. Halpern was hired by the Esalen Institute to play weekly, bringing his meditative music to the holistic retreat in Big Sur. Turned on by his unique sound and the spirit and body awareness of his process, the leaders of the institute urged Halpern to develop the science behind his sound so it may be more available to those who would benefit from its meditative qualities.

Per the recommendation of leaders from the Human Potential Movement, Steven Halpern returned to school to earn his masters degree and begin a placebo-controlled, double-blind study into the effects of his music on listeners around 1971 to 1973. The results? This new sound—this new music—produced a noticeable difference in response as opposed to classical, rock, or jazz music.

From here, Halpern would go on to cut his first record. Though the record industry seemed to have little interest in Halpern’s music with no discernable beat, and though the medical and pharmaceutical industry questioned the safety of the relaxation sciences, people were still looking for music to which to relax, meditate, and destress.

Halpern's albums include Spectrum Suite, Deep Theta, Starborn Suite, Rings of Saturn, Islands in Time, and many self-help, self-guided de-stress and healing albums. His sound is centered around “non-anticipatory” music, which he accomplished with electro-acoustic instruments, Kurzweil synthesizers, and other traditional percussion instruments from around the world: a potent combination for composing that new age sound.

Rapid Evolution: the Next Steps for New Age Music

The well from which new age music flows is deep. Synthesizers helped bring new age music to the industry quite quickly. The expansiveness of electronic music and the big bang for new age and ambient music marks the '70s as a very exciting time for synthesizers and the music coming from those who composed from behind the electronic helm.

Wendy Carlos’s Sonic Seasoning, Vangelis’s gripping L'Apocalypse Des Animaux and Heaven & Hell, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" Tomita’s The Planets, and many more titles mark a decade where artists known for jazz, neoclassical, ambient, krautrock, prog rock, and other genres began to release new age records.

It is notable that many piano and neoclassical composers and performers would find their way to the new age genre. Instruments with dynamic expressive ranges fit quite comfortably in a new age mix. Recreating the chanting and resonating sounds found in the Eastern influences of records like Music for Zen Meditation, synthesizers, stringed acoustic and electro-acoustic instruments, and vocal and wind instruments became prime places to start when setting up a new age composition.

In California, new age music was taking on a life of its own with labels like Valley of the Sun and Windham Hill Records focusing on genre.

Now coming into focus, new age music was primed and ready for the technology and ethos of the 1980s. With more advanced digital reverb, electric wind instruments, and other practitioners instead looking to the past, the '80s can be marked as a decade where new age music began to bloom. By 1985, Ray Lynch’s The Sky of Mind, Michael Stearns's Serge modular synthesizer-focused Planetary Unfolding, Kay Gardner’s expansive A Rainbow Path, George Winston’s Autumn, Nina Hagen’s NunSexMonkRock, Steve Roach’s Now, and Suzanne Ciani’s Seven Waves have hit the shelves around the world.

In 1986, Constance Demby’s hit Novus Magnificat was released.

Around this time, articles started popping up defending the legitimacy of the genre. The sentiment seems to be the same across these articles—new age music is here, and it is not exactly what you think it is. Artists like Yanni, Tangerine Dream, Mannheim Steamroller, and Rick Wakeman were bringing new age releases to popular music. In Japan, Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green celebrated the powerful piano of the new age composer’s iconic sound. Electronic bands like Germany’s Software would bring us electronic ambient new age records which would continue in the tradition of new age music’s and ambient music’s partnership through the decades.

And, while the genre became more cosmic, toting expansive reverb drenched ambient tracks, composers that still worked in more esoteric circles, where the sound leaned less towards the heavens and more inward, were continuing to release monumental music.

Spirituality and the Continued Evolution of New Age Music

“Music is a service to people…it is a kind of way to open up channels to make them feel good, to make them high, to take away some of those burdens,” said minimalist composer Terry Riley.

Terry Riley released a handful of albums in the '80s, including the meditative Shri Camel and piano classic The Harp of New Albion. Riley’s work is fascinating—he is one of the earliest minimalist composers, and his work is process-oriented and absolutely beautiful. A master pianist, Terry Riley’s compositions reflect his deep well of knowledge regarding eastern spiritual thinking.

Riley describes true musical performance as a state of samadhi, a yoga experience where a yogi is in a blissful superconscious state and can truly understand their own soul and cosmic spirit. Part of his minimalist approach depends on this trance relationship with the instrument, depending on repetition to guide the performance and arc of the composition.

Riley would compose in Raag Kafi, a traditional Indian classical scale which originated in India’s ancient folk music. This specific scale, according to Riley, was extremely generative—and as the performer begins to trust more completely in the scale, becoming focused on the music, the form would create beautiful music that the performer and instrument seemed to create in congress. Like Riley, artists like zither maestro Laraaji and the Greek composer Iasos, who worked regularly with Steven Halpern, would continue to recognize the sacred in their sound.

Kay Gardner, a pioneer in the women’s spirituality movement, used music as a way to resist. Joanna Brouk is another example of a spiritual composer whose sound searched for sparse open spaces. A common thread for all of these composers is the concept that music and the body are intertwined: they call on ancient and powerful spiritual fonts to create their music.

New Age Music and the Mainstream

The end of the 1980s would bring another player to the forefront of new age music, setting the genre up for yet another wonderful change as the 1990s quickly approached.

Artists like Enya and Loreena McKennitt were writing ethereal Celtic folk songs which fit nicely into the new age pop genre. In fact, it would be their contributions in the '80s that would help bring about yet another subgenre of new age music: Celtic new age music. While Celtic new age really took off in the '90s, the '80s boasted Enya’s Watermark, which brought us the seminal track “Orinoco Flow.”

Celtic new age music would bring a new vibe to the genre of new age music. It finally appeared that new age music was becoming profitable, and record labels seized the opportunity to find how their folk or neoclassical records could be massaged towards a new audience.

Similarly, Peter Gabriel’s label Realworld and Brian Eno’s general success brought the ambient genre to a larger audience, ultimately generating some more new age-leaning releases in the '90s; however, the sound seemed new age in appearance only, as the “underlying ethos that initially defined” the genre seemed to be nonexistent at this point.

The late '90s would present an almost unrecognizable version of the new age music genre, which was no longer typified by spiritual practitioners. Instead, the "new age" moniker became a marketing tool and catch-all for records resistant to easy classification. That is not to say that the same type of relaxation music was not being distributed to therapy offices and in meditation practices—Steven Halpern continues to release beautiful healing music as he always has, but whether the music being distributed was released as new age music or Celtic music or ambient music, there was no longer a specific standard. In fact, new age music had become so expansive, it seemed to have collapsed on itself

New Age Music Today

All hope was not lost, as the 21st century brought a new life to new age music. In the 2000s, groups like Enigma would garnish huge record sales and "new world music," an offshoot of new age music, would begin to flourish and take off. By 2010, a more original new age music was poised to make a comeback. Between then and now, new age music has begun to return to its roots.

The 2010s would bring us Alice Coltrane’s World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Mark Barrott’s Sketches From An Island 2, Mary Lattimore’s Hundreds of Days, Johnny Nash/Suzanne Kraft’s joint release Passive Aggressive, Laraaji’s Vision Songs, Vol. 1, and many more memorable new age music releases.

Labels like Numero Group, Joyful Noise, All Saints Records, Flying Moonlight Records, and other labels interested in experimental music continue to put out new releases from more experimentally-minded, avant garde new age music creators. Record labels like Leaving Records look to the past to offer even more authentic new age music experiences. Founder and zither/new age music practitioner Matthew McQueen (who composes amazing music as Matthewdavid) has reissued several Laraaji records. However, the label does not just do reissues, you can expect some complex and mind engaging releases from Leaving Records.

The journey of new age music is a long one with many interesting offshoots, but the spirit of the genre seems to always find its way back to the heart of the sound. Like many genres, there is a spectrum of releases, some held in higher esteem than others. Some releases are considered more "valid" than others—more spiritual than others, less corporate than others, more mainstream, or original, or marketable.

One thing remains constant in new age music: there are always listeners looking to music for comfort, relaxation, and peace, and musicians continue to find joy in the performance and composition of such an intimate and switched-on genre.