I want to clear up a misconception / misuse of two words. Many people think (even some composers and those in the music business), that the musical styles “Ambient” and “New Age” are the same and these two expressions are interchangeable. Especially in the US, people tend to pigeonhole both into some simple, mellow, uninteresting, cheesy (yet not even existing) style of “mood music” or “elevator music”. And they could not be any more wrong. Although these days they can be partially right. More about this later. In Europe, as electronic and various contemporary instrumental musical styles are much more popular, the mix-up is less of an issue, however the differences are often just guessed and not clearly understood.
First let’s take a look at what these wonderful musical genres are not. Although the categories “elevator music” and “mood music” do exist, these phrases reference the use, rather than the genre of such music. Especially elevator music – which has become a somewhat cynical phrase in English to describe an uninteresting wall of background music – is not descriptive of a music genre; I have heard classical, contemporary orchestral, country, big band, electronic, new age, jazz, and even rock music in elevators. There are “mood music” or “atmospheric music” CDs available as well, some not even containing music but sound effects, some featuring classical music. Therefore, these aren’t musical styles, rather modern-day expressions describing the use, or (sometimes rightfully) suggesting the lack of diversity and musical depth of a track.
Let’s go back to the question of Ambient vs. New Age music. In their “lighter”, commercialized form, well known since the ’80s, these can be some gently flowing, predictable pieces of music, often using only a few basic chords, inspiring melodies and simple, most likely synth – based instrumentation, with frequent use of piano and strings (or string-like synth pads), maybe some arpeggiated synth parts. However, in the late ’60s, pioneers of electronic music were already working on a compositionally and aesthetically much deeper level to create Ambient pieces (and New Age music later in the ’70s).
While Ambient music in the ’60s and through the ’70s usually referred to new experimental music, noise- and sound-inspired music (such as music concrete) – contemporary electronic music with no- or very limited commercial intentions, – early New Age (and a handful of Ambient) compositions were popularized by the great modern composers of instrumental-electronic music, such as Vangelis, Eno (who first started using the phrase “ambient music”), Jarre, Oldfield, Schulze, Clarke, etc. Of course, I do not blame these wonderful creators for the commercialization of the style – that was the (unavoidable?) side effect of the popularization of their work itself! Also, thank to them, electronic music in general gained a much wider acceptance, and later appreciation… without which only a few of you would be reading my lines now, or, maybe electronic music would mean something entirely different today (an interesting topic for another time).
In a way, New Age helped to make electronic music accessible and enjoyable for the quality-demanding audiences, especially in Europe where electronic and rock instrumentations were kept more separate (outside of the Lucky Man type of approach) than in the U.S. However, the process in which New Age music got diluted into some atmospheric relaxation nonsense (and yes, typical elevator music), is another, rather unfortunate matter. I won’t mention the names of the performers with pretty smiles, long hair and white pianos here, as they were only messengers with a bad taste and too much hunger for fame. Not bringing up the listening standards of the masses to the already popularized electronic/new age music, but dumbing down a style to create assembly-line type of products that appealed mostly to an overly romantic segment of the audience was an unforgivable yet familiar deed of the music industry. It is their greed that has made New Age into what it is today.
While New Age often intended to express traditional (romantic, classical) ideas by replacing orchestral instruments with synthesized sounds, Ambient music has always contained a certain level of experimentation and sonic risk (from a popularity angle). Although the philosophy and driving force behind the evolution of the New Age and Ambient styles have been different from the beginning, there are countless examples for their marriage, often blurring the line between the two genres – especially in the early ’80s (think of Vangelis or Eno).
With the explosion of digital technologies and their application in music production, the two styles’ deviation accelerated in the early to mid-90s, thank to the better mass-appeal and marketability of New Age, and as a consequence of these new technologies’ effect on electronic music production, serving up the two genres’ differing fundamental ideology in different ways. While it became even easier and a fairly challenge-less task to produce New Age records, with every record farther diluting the already over-digested writing- production- and listening experience, Ambient music stayed true to its origin and took the harder road: the challenge of originality. Although not yet in a widely published way (not that it has ever been widely published), Ambient music started truly benefiting from the advances in digital audio- and music production, especially sample manipulation, new synthesis methods and new electronic instruments and controllers.
By the end of the ’90s, the focus shifted from interesting chords and repurposed real-life sounds to produced-from-scratch soundscapes, and sounds constructed and modified in new and original ways. The decade-long influence of popular electronic music (mainly techno, then trance and drum&bass around the turn of the millennium) breathed new life into Ambient. The 2000s brought the rediscovery of integrating acoustic instruments and the benefits of using new performance techniques into electronic music, which further shaped Ambient music into what some refer to as “the classical music of the digital age”.
I feel that these days “New Age” has a less flattering connotation than ever before, while “Ambient” has expanded from the textural and very loosely structured compositions into various electronic and electroacoustic directions, which make it appealing for a wider audience than before, yet its philosophy and complexity keep it “niche enough” to prevent it from the dangerous commercialization New Age went through. In 1981, I would have gladly announced myself as someone working in either genres, however, today I rather introduce myself as a composer of ambient electronic music, to avoid any preconceived ideas.
Of course, all these expressions, sub-genres of electronic music, transformations and influences aside, what matters is the music itself, not what we call it.