Composing New Age Music

‘New Age’ or Relaxation Music, like all music intended as a background ambience, can elicit very mixed responses from different people. Whilst some find the neutrality of the synthesized sounds relaxing (rather like a blank canvas), others have commented that they find it repetitive and overly artificial. Well crafted music should allow the person meditating, performing yoga or experiencing a holistic therapy to mentally ‘switch off’ from internal thoughts and external stimuli. It also serves the purpose of masking intrusive noises, such as outside traffic and conversations which may be occurring nearby and the presence of music may help the client feel that they don’t need to make conversation with the practitioner to alleviate the silence. Ideally slow, without too many changes of tempo, relaxation music should create a backdrop to aid calming and allow the client to focus on any treatment they are receiving.

Often though, this seemingly neutral music can cause consternation in the listener. The seemingly slow ‘swirl’ of the synthesized keyboard textures is not everyone’s cup of tea. The use of birdsong, waterfalls, rainfall as well as the sound of dolphins, whales and other creatures can be distracting rather than relaxing. Sampled indigenous sounds (such as didgeridoos or chanting) may be greatly enjoyed by many but can occasionally alienate people who are not immersed in a New Age philosophy. So, as all our tastes are different, whilst New Age music is ultimately designed to have a relaxing influence, for some it can have the opposite effect or even provoke scorn. A friend who works as a massage practitioner commented that for the majority people who are simply coming along for a treatment on tense shoulders or a sports injury, she usually selects albums of quiet classical guitar or harp music as these are tasteful and calming without any unfamiliar or artificial noises.

This was something I reflected on whilst writing the album ‘Music for Healing, Relaxation and Massage’. The music was always going to be written with real instruments replacing the more usual synthesizers, I wanted to make sure that it was an album that could be played and enjoyed by most people, without a practitioner or clients being distracted by anything unfamiliar. The instrumentation included violins, violas, cellos, flutes, oboes and cor anglais. As the music was composed with orchestral instruments in mind (and not on a keyboard transcribed electronically), each melodic line was written to have complete independence from all the others – this is a hallmark of classical music in general. If you were to highlight and listen to one instrument, its melody would make perfect sense on its own. The music also had to effectively hold the listener in a suspended state of relaxation without using minor chords, changes in tempo, original melody – as all of these usual compositional techniques could be too distracting for a client receiving healing. The important thing was to avoid writing anything that was too memorable – again, this is the opposite of what a composer or string arranger would usually do. I was advised that if a client came out of a therapy humming a catchy tune, they may not have been able to fully relax into the treatment. Writing in this new genre was a challenge, yet an opportunity to try and create a certain mood or atmosphere, where the music contributes to the effect of the healing session without dominating in any way.

Another challenge was to write twelve tracks (each of almost exactly five minutes in length), each of which had a slightly different mood, but which merged one into another seamlessly. So, it would be as if each track had a subtly different shade of colour, without this being too jarring on the senses. The beginning of the album was to represent the beginning of a treatment, with the patient gradually acclimatizing to a deeper state of relaxation, therefore the music had to reflect this by becoming more ethereal and thinly scored as the treatment progressed, being at its most sparse and minimal in the three central tracks. After this, the album gradually comes back down to earth and becomes more ‘grounded’ at the end of the healing session, with a final ‘reprise’ as a gentle signal that the hour is drawing to its close. The last track is a continuation and variation of the opening track, so this signals the end and prepares the listener for the return to the everyday world.

Although when I first started this project, I hadn’t really considered writing like this, what I gained from the project was the ability to compose in a totally new style of music – one that enables the listener to be in the moment with a sense of stillness. I had to curb any natural temptation to write interesting harmonies, counter melodies, rhythmical changes and powerful orchestration as these can be too stirring on the emotions. Feedback from several sources (including our local chiropractor) was that the music was very different from anything else she played in her clinic and that lots of her clients had remarked on how using a real orchestra was a breath of fresh air. Some people have suggested that stringed instruments might have a healing effect in their own right, with natural vibrations emanating from the harmonies and the input of human beings actually performing music on real instruments makes it sound…well, real!