A single New Age music definition is hard to pin down. So often, New Age music overlaps with many other genres like progressive rock and folk music.
New Age music spans from flowing single-instrument melodies for meditation to boundary-pushing soft rock and instrumental compositions.
Let's look at the genre and some of its most well-known artists to see what classifies music as New Age.
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Definition: What Is New Age Music?
New Age musical artists try to create a state of almost trancelike relaxation or mindfulness in the listener rather than focusing on chord progressions or patterns. Several popular New Age hits were improvised originally and recorded later.
The genre includes instrumentals, electronica, folk melodies from several cultures, and often a relaxing vibe specifically designed to help people meditate.
Much modern New Age music stretches beyond the yoga and meditation soundtracks from the spiritual movement in the 1970s.
The New Age music definition encompasses many other sounds, from Zen meditation melodies to synthesizers and progressive rock.
New Age Music Characteristics
Despite the large variety of sounds in New Age music, a few characteristics help set it apart from other genres.
New Age recordings, especially those designed for yoga, meditation, and relaxation, feature various sound effects that give each song a unique focus.
Sometimes the sounds are from synthesizers and electronic devices designed to create cosmic or otherworldly effects. These sounds feature heavily in the New Age subgenre of space music.
Nature sounds are common in New Age recordings too. Babbling brooks, rainstorms, beach sounds or rainforest noises, whale songs, and bird songs are only a few of the natural sound effects often used.
A Mix of Instruments
Some of the earliest New Age music was all acoustic. As the genre caught on, synthesizers and electronic instruments appeared.
Some of the most famous artists used both, which gives a song a mix of sounds that adds to the New Age atmosphere.
Instruments not typically used in most other genres often feature heavily in this music. Sometimes instruments that appear in large orchestras become the principal instrument, like a clarinet, flute, harp (which is often seen as hard to play), or harpsichord.
Even in the most modern New Age recordings, you won't find the driving sound of heavy rock guitars or the dissonance of much hard rock or heavy metal.
The predictable melodies and choruses of most pop, rock, country, and even jazz stand out more than the musical features in New Age recordings.
While the earliest New Age albums were tranquil and used for meditation, later music that became popular often pulled in elements of pop or rock but with a definitive atmosphere of relaxing, peaceful chords and melodies.
Much New Age music made today is reminiscent of the earliest meditation songs, but the ones that top the charts typically span two or more genres.
Much New Age music is longer than typically music releases, with songs sometimes stretching over 15 or 20 minutes. The sense is often that the musicians are having an experience and not concerned about the marketability of a piece.
Their concern is its creation and sharing it with the listeners.
Many New Age music albums have a specific purpose, usually in the title or listed in the notes.
Relaxation, mindfulness, physical or mental healing and well-being, better sleep, sensual pleasure, and brain expansiveness are some of the purposes of specific songs and albums.
New Age music recorded for specific purposes often contains subliminal affirmations beneath the music.
7 Examples of New Age Music
Here are some examples of the different sounds you'll find when you ask, “What is New Age music?”
This track comes from Tony Scott's album Music for Zen Meditation, widely regarded as the first New Age album ever released. The song has no lyrics, drums, guitars, or horns.
The song is a single clarinet joined by one or two other woodwinds. There's no catchy melody or predictable chorus, but a soft, soothing sound perfect for meditation, relaxation, and letting go of the day's worries.
Sail Away (Orinoco Flow)
One of the biggest hits in the New Age genre made Irish singer Enya a sensation in the late 1980s.
This song about getting away from it all and sailing away to better times has a lovely melody with staccato beats that add some texture but don't jolt the listener.
“Orinoco Flow” was one of the biggest hits of the late 80s, hitting #1 on multiple charts worldwide. It earned Enya two Grammy Award nominations.
This track from the album of the same name by Tangerine Dream is over 17 minutes of synthesizers, including a Moog synthesizer, organ, electric piano, guitars, and otherworldly sound effects. Released in 1974, Phaedra peaked at #13 in Australia and #15 on the UK albums chart.
The sound effects and the synth rhythms beneath them give the song a cosmic sound. It would be at home in a soundtrack for a serious outer space science fiction film.
The futuristic but relaxing sound of the song was one of the earliest uses of electronic music to create an epic listening experience. The success of the album, which was the band's second album, brought them international recognition.
This first single put out by Enigma in 1990 hit #1 in over a dozen countries and reached #5 on the US Billboard chart.
Gregorian chanting begins the song on top of percussion and soft synthesizers in a way nobody had heard Gregorian vocals before.
The song is mostly sung in French and Latin, adding to the mystique. Synthesizer and flute figure heavily in the track, giving it a transcendental atmosphere.
Deep Alpha Part 13
This track from Steve Halpern's album Deep Alpha: Brainwave Entrainment Music for Meditation and Healing is part of the record's instrumental and cosmic sound.
The synthesized music slowly changes volume and pitch in what's supposed to synchronize the listener's brainwaves to promote relaxation, healing, and a transcendental experience.
Halpern won the Crystal Award at the first International New Age Music Conference in 1988 and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Age Album for this release.
Island of Life
Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes sings this song from the 1992 album Dream by Japanese musician Kitarō. Electronic sounds, a mellow melody, and a soft rhythm that only includes drums in the finale make this song easy listening.
The gentle electronic effects bring to mind raindrops hitting the water, while Anderson sings about how much he loves the object of his affection and how he would be nothing without her. The lyrics serve as an allegory for mother earth's importance for humanity.
Down to the Moon
Down to the Moon is a song released from Andreas Vollenweider's 1986 album of the same name. The song features classic sounds of the genre, including synthesizers, bells, a soft percussion line, and flowing melody lines with flutes and other woodwinds.
A harp and strings dominate the song and the album, which went down in history as the first album to win a Grammy Award in the newly created New Age category.
5 Top New Age Musicians
From the release of the first New Age album to music that tops the charts, here are five of the top New Age musicians.
Though jazz clarinetist Tony Scott's earliest recordings were of his jazz quartet and a mix of jazz and swing music, in 1964, he released Music for Zen Meditation. The album was the first New Age album ever released.
This largely improvised album features Scott on the clarinet with two other musicians on the koto and a shakuhachi flute.
Scott's travel to Japan and Asia inspired the album with a distinctive Zen aesthetic, with the slow, loose-flowing melodies and peaceful sounds, making it perfect for Zen meditation.
He released several more albums of meditation music, with posthumous albums released after his death in 2007.
Steve Halpern believes that he received the sound of a new type of healing music while meditating in 1969.
He dedicated himself to composing New Age music designed to balance and harmonize people's body, spirit, and mind that trains listeners' brains to tap into the moment and find inner peace and healing.
His music became synonymous with self-help recordings and subliminal affirmations. Halpern released dozens of albums from 1976 to 2014, many designed to help with sleeping, healing, tapping into the brain's power, relaxation, and meditation.
He's widely considered a founder of the New Age music movement.
This group that started with married couple Randy and Pamela Copus, with their daughter Sarah joining when she was ten, is one of the top-selling New Age musical groups today.
Formed in 1992, 2002 released 12 albums that charted in Billboard's New Age Albums chart. Album #19, an uplifting and tranquil album titled Hummingbird, topped the charts in 2021.
Some of their albums have remained on the New Age charts for over a year.
Often called the “Queen of New Age,” this Irish-born singer and songwriter launched her career in 1984 but achieved worldwide fame in 1988 with her album Watermark and the first single “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).”
Enya earned four Grammy Awards, several other music awards, and nominations for an Academy Award for the Celtic folk song “May It Be” for the film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
She's sold over 26 million albums in the US alone, with an estimated 75 million album sales worldwide, without ever going on tour or performing more than a handful of times. Her 2000 album A Day Without Rain is the best-selling New Age album of all time.
Enya is also the best-selling Irish solo singer in history. Her album The Very Best of Enya hit #1 on the Billboard New Age Album chart in 2022.
Andreas Vollenweider holds the distinction of winning the Best New Age Album Grammy Award the first year the category became part of the Grammy Awards with his atmospheric, cosmic album Down to the Moon in 1987. The Swiss harpist uses an electroacoustic harp in his music.
From 2013 to 2015, he composed music for a scientific study to see if music could improve the neural development of premature babies. The study showed that the preterm brain benefited from the music when the babies neural networks improved.
Vollenweider collaborated with several musicians over his career, from Luciano Pavarotti to Carly Simon. He released his 15th studio album in 2020.
The History of New Age Music
New Age music came from the New Age spiritual movement that started in the 1960s. The growing popularity of meditation and yoga grew with the popularity of New Age music.
The first New Age album was Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation in 1964. Other albums and artists followed, with heavy use of electronic music and synthesizers, including Steve Halpern's first New Age musical releases started in 1969.
Mike Oldfield's instrumental piece “Tubular Bells” in 1973 on the album of the same name with its haunting piano and chimes became the theme song for the film The Exorcist. It's one of the best-selling New Age and progressive rock fusion albums ever recorded.
Artists like Vangelis, who rejected the New Age categorization, created music that many considered New Age that straddled orchestral music and progressive rock.
Vangelis composed the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to the Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire in 1984 and became a household name for people who liked New Age music.
Other artists like Enya, Enigma, Shadowfax, Yanni, and Kitarō dominated the New Age charts in the late 80s and 90s.
The popularity of New Age music peaked during these years, and many New Age recordings became fusions of the genre's peaceful and tranquil sounds with genres like folk, progressive rock, classical, electronic music, and ambient music.
Today's New Age music definition is a blend of the cosmic New Age sounds, folk music, and synthesized sound used for self-help and medication. Synth, piano, woodwinds, and electronic music make up the bulk of the genre.
Some of the top New Age hits in the last few years include albums by 2002, Cheryl B. Engelhardt, and long-time New Age hitmakers Andreas Vollenweider and Enya.
What Is New Age Music? Final Thoughts
The New Age acoustic and psychedelic electronic meditation music from the 1960s and 70s gave way to songs with folk and pop aesthetics to top the charts in the 80s, 90s, and beyond.
New Age encompasses multiple genres under its umbrella, including music designed for self-help, healing, meditation, and relaxation.
No matter which genre of music is your favorite, you can find New Age music that incorporates similar sounds and blends genres to create something new.