You have probably heard of the genre “adult contemporary music,” but what is it? The term is vague, but the definition of adult contemporary music is clearer.
Definition: What Is Adult Contemporary Music?
Adult contemporary covers a wide range of music, as it’s defined as radio-popular, easy listening with strong vocals. The genre consists of ballads and sounds akin to soft rock.
It’s a style of pop focusing on soothing rhythms, clear instruments, and romantic lyrics sung by artists with stunning voices. The genre blends relaxed R&B, classic folk, soft rock, soft pop, and easy listening to create emotional and chart-topping music.
5 Adult Contemporary Music Characteristics
To understand what can be categorized as adult contemporary, familiarize yourself with a few genre characteristics. While music genres often overlap and bleed into one another, below are five general traits of adult contemporary.
Almost all adult contemporary music has lyrics concerning love or loss of love. Some of the most dramatic and emotional ballads are adult contemporary, like Celine Dion’s “I Will Always Love You” or Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”
While some songs may not be about love, they always have sentimental, soft themes. Sometimes the lyrics focus on self-love or moving on. The genre uses meaningful and poetic lyrics to go with the soft and emotional sounds.
While adult contemporary music uses influences from many genres, including soft rock, country, and classic easy listening, it takes a lot of notes from R&B music.
It uses smooth and soothing R&B sounds and rhythms to create music with a memorable beat that isn’t too powerful or pronounced.
Some adult contemporary artists lean heavily on R&B, while others use these influences sparingly. But rhythm, soul, and the blues find their way into most adult contemporary music.
Adult contemporary music won’t use complex instruments and synthesizers. With adult contemporary, you can pick out what instruments are in the song, especially since there is a lot of acoustic music in the genre.
Adult contemporary music features gentle keyboards, acoustic guitars, and light percussion. This genre does not use distortion to create new sounds like other genres do, like alternative and hip-hop.
Adult contemporary songs purposefully go against heavy-handed music, like traditional rock and roll or rap. When the popular music on the radio is rap, disco, funk, heavy metal, or hard rock, adult contemporary counters all of these with soft sounds and romantic themes.
It’s low-energy music and more appropriate for a slow dance than a funky breakdown. The best way to characterize it is as “easy listening,” as it's not harsh on your ears and doesn’t demand attention.
It can function as soft background music. Unsurprisingly, it’s often played in waiting rooms or public areas like malls.
One of the required characteristics of adult contemporary music is its popularity. Adult contemporary music is typically well-known songs that play on the radio.
Underground, indie and alternative music can be adult contemporary as long as it's well-known enough.
7 Examples of Adult Contemporary Music
To give you an idea of what falls under adult contemporary, check out these seven examples that exemplify the variety of sounds in this genre.
1. I Want It That Way by Backstreet Boys
The Backstreet Boys combine smooth R&B sounds with soft ballads in this iconic boy band song. While many boybands were still creating dance music, The Backstreet Boys slowed it down to create this romantic and catchy love song.
2. How Am I Supposed To Live Without You by Michael Bolton
Possibly Michael Bolton’s most dramatic song, you can feel his emotion and vulnerability in this song. His music embodies the power ballad and the easy listening style of adult contemporary without being boring. In this song, he belts out his woes about his love leaving him.
3. Fantasy by Mariah Carey
A more poppy example of adult contemporary is Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” The song has a whimsical sound with lyrics to match. This is a fantastic example of easy listening because it has soft, pop sounds that can work as positive background music.
4. The Power Of Love by Celine Dion
Slow and sappy, this song perfectly encapsulates what Celine Dion’s music was about. It has soft music with clear instruments, allowing the listener to focus on and appreciate her beautiful vocals. The song is about emotion and softness, leaving behind poppy beats or complex sounds.
5. Hello by Lionel Richie
This song falls on the sadder, grittier side of adult contemporary. It’s easy to listen to but has meaningful lyrics with an undertone of desperation and depression. Lionel Richie checks all the adult contemporary boxes, giving the world one of the most tragic ballads.
6. You’re Still The One by Shania Twain
For something more upbeat than Richie, there is Shania Twain! The song is upbeat, between easy listening and dance music. The lyrics also exemplify her country roots with light storytelling.
7. I’ll Make Love To You by Boyz II Men
Some people may wonder why it’s “adult” contemporary. This song should answer that question. While many adult contemporary artists kept it clean, others sang about raunchier subjects like sex, distinguishing this as an adult genre.
But Boyz II Men make a sexy, soft song with all the elements of adult contemporary music.
5 Top Adult Contemporary Musicians
Below are five artists that show the range and success of the adult contemporary genre.
1. Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac began as a hard rock band but quickly pivoted to more gentle music. Their music incorporates blues and folk music, along with soft rock traits. They offered soothing but powerful adult contemporary music when the radio waves mostly featured hard rock and roll.
2. Michael Bolton
Michael Bolton made some of the most emotional and moving ballads. While younger generations may not recognize his name, they almost always know his dramatic and expressive love ballads.
3. Elton John
Elton John is one of the most successful musical artists in history. He released 32 albums over his long and ongoing career, all emphasizing his angelic and moving voice.
While he had many sensitive ballads, he also released more upbeat music into the genre while keeping it within the range of easy listening.
Adele has one of the most stunning voices and showcases it on her raw albums that revolve around love and loss. She rarely uses distortion or electronic elements in her music, keeping it acoustic and soothing.
People know Adele for her passionate and often painful lyrics that coincide with her alluring voice. Adele is an excellent example of the softest side of adult contemporary.
5. Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey's music leans heavily toward R&B without sacrificing the easy listening qualities you expect from adult contemporary music. Her music is uninhibited but also gentle, appealing to a wide audience.
The History of Adult Contemporary Music
Adult contemporary music is one of the most popular genres, even if people are not familiar with the terminology. Whole radio stations dedicate themselves to playing adult contemporary music because it’s a widely appreciated genre.
This section will look at the history of adult contemporary music to see how it got to where it is today!
Adult contemporary music didn't truly emerge until the 1960s. In the 60s, some people wanted the fun and emotions of rock music without the loud instruments and distortion. This desire opened up the perfect space for adult contemporary music.
This period was also the beginning of the easy listening genre, where rock and roll artists drew inspiration from show tunes and folk music.
Artists combined the soothing sounds of folk music with the rhythmic fun and pop traits of radio music at the time. Some notable artists from the 60s include Roger Miller, Perry Como, and Barbara Streisand.
In the next decade, rock music only got more intense and distorted. This period is when acts like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath rose in popularity. While this music was beloved by many, not everyone appreciated the intense sounds.
By contrast, more easy-listening artists topped the charts, such as Elton John, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, and Olivia Newton-John. Radio stations pivoted to only play soft rock for those looking to escape the heavy metal on the more popular radio stations.
By the 80s, adult contemporary music had a firm footing on the radio. During this time, many soft subgenres joined slow rock playlists and easy rock radio stations. This is when many feel adult contemporary was truly born.
Radio stations began to identify as “adult contemporary listening,” veering away from heavy-handed music and only playing lighter songs.
As the 90s began, adult contemporary artists evolved. The genre was once mostly bands and artists who had softened their rock music. But now, poppier artists were slowing down their sounds with smooth R&B rhythms.
Artists like Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Boyz II Men created songs that had the fun elements of pop combined with the emotion of folk music and ballads. However, this pop music still avoided heavy-handed dance beats or strong distortion.
As the 90s came to a close and the 2000s began, you can see how popular powerful love ballads became.
They’ve always been a staple in adult contemporary music, but artists like Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and James Blunt found their niche during this time with mighty love songs that tug at your heartstrings.
This era of adult contemporary was about love and pain and belting out a song about it. This era was a time of dramatic ballads and impeccable vocals.
Moving into the 2010s, the umbrella of adult contemporary music only grows. While some adult contemporary artists came from rock and roll, R&B, or folk music, the genre widened with artists from different backgrounds.
Artists like Taylor Swift and Shania Twain used their country roots to create adult contemporary music with stories and romantic sounds.
Another thing adult contemporary music popularized is the singer-songwriter combination. People want powerful lyrics matched with emotional music, making people like Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, Michael Buble, and Adele popular.
As time goes on, the category of adult contemporary continues to expand. Now, artists who were once too poppy are on adult contemporary stations.
People like Justin Beiber, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Halsey find themselves on adult contemporary stations, despite being expected to have a young audience.
The line between pop music and adult contemporary seems to grow thinner every day, but this genre still conspicuously excludes rap, rock, and dance music.
What Is Adult Contemporary Music? Final Thoughts
Essentially, the definition of adult contemporary music is popular easy listening with romantic lyrics. Adult contemporary will likely always be a popular genre, as many adults want something soft but meaningful to listen to.