How “New Age” is New Age Music?

Article ID: DN389 | By: Elliot Miller

There can be no disputing that the increasingly popular and profitable “New Age music” has roots in the New Age movement — the identical names are not a coincidence. The trend began with jazz luminaries like Paul Horn and John Fahey seeking to create music especially conducive to New Age spirituality. Then, as recounted by New Age seminar leader and entrepreneur Dick Sutphen, in the latter 1970s Steven Halpern created a “soothing music that was…great for visualization. Structured on a pentatonic scale, there was no tension, no resolve, and it inspired without distr acting.” (“The Emergence of New Age Music,” Self-Help Update, issue 29, 14.) Halpern, who holds a Master’s degree in the psychology of music, was deliberately attempting to facilitate the development of “higher” levels of consciousness. This has remained a central goal for many New Age musicians today. Even Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, whose records have sold in the millions, explains that the purpose of the tranquil sound is to “build a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious. We have to somehow excite our spirituality.” (Bill Barol with Mark D. Uehling and George Raine, “Muzak for a New Age,” Newsweek, 13 May 1985, 68.) For many involved in this burgeoning field, however, the primary incentives appear to be artistic expression and/or financial gain. Windham Hill, the leading New Age label, has in 10 years grown into a $21 million record company. Its artists include such popular names as George Winston and Shadowfax. While strongly expressing their commitment to creative over monetary values, they explicitly deny any commitment to the New Age movement. Correspondingly, they do not pursue the more “hard-core” New Age music (which Sutphen calls “Inner Harmony New Age Music”) that is used as background for meditation and healing sessions. Instead, they have become associated with “New Age jazz,” a progressive blend of jazz, rock, folk, and other influen- ces. It is this jazz-oriented form of New Age music, along with the electronic sound associated with names like Vangelis (Chariots of Fire) and Tangerine Dream, that is played on most “New Age” radio stations. Prominent among these is KTWV, Los Angeles (“The Wave”), which is syndicating its programming nationwide. The common thread that unites these otherwise diverse forms of New Age music is supposed to be feeling — listening to them generates a peaceful and uplifting mood. How dangerous is New Age music, if at all? The primary means for conveying spiritual influences through music is words. Since most New Age music is nonverbal, except for song titles, this opportunity rarely exists. When it comes to melodies and rhythms, there is much greater possibility than with words for the original intention to become diffused in the medium. Thus, while the composer may intend to elicit a particular mystical mood, the noninitiate listener simply becomes more relaxed. I believe this would be the case with most “inner harmony” New Age music. After all, even when New Agers are specifically attempting to induce altered states of consciousness through their music, much of their applied theory is based on New Age presuppositions which Christians would not be inclined to accept. These include belief in the correspondence of particular sound frequencies with more or less mystical levels of consciousness, and an equation of certain relaxed or emotional states with mystical states. In any case, by and large only the inner harmony school appears to be seriously attempting such an effect. The strongest potential for a truly New Age musician to use his music for the New Age cause would lie in live performances. He could evangelize between tunes, or lead the group in a medita- tion or visualization. For example, Hawaiian New Age musician Robert Aeolus Myers likes to share the spiritual basis behind his music with his audiences. “I just feel like there’s a personal responsibility to allow people the opportunity for awakening,” he explains. (Mike Gordon, “The New Age of Music,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 5 Nov. 1987.) Additionally, some New Age melodies are so obviously patterned after familiar mystical or meditative rhythms (e.g., the mystical refrain “om”) that their pagan associations are inescapable. Listening to such music for entertainment or relaxation could easily result in someone being stumbled — either the listener or another believer (see 1 Cor. 8). Although these are valid concerns, I must say that I have listened extensively to the Southern California New Age stations, and have found almost nothing objectionable (though this does not exonerate all New Age stations everywhere. Some are clearly New Age in every sense of the word). It would seem to me that if the discerning Christian remains alert to the possibility of undesirable influences occasionally coming through, he or she could listen to the progressive varieties of New Age music, in moderation, without ill effect. Given the heavily mystical orientation of inner harmony New Age music, I would advise against the Christian going out of his or her way to listen to it. As a general practice, it is not wise to passively submit to the influences of one who is seeking by those influences to produce an unchristian effect. But if such music happens to be playing within earshot (e.g., a relative or fellow worker is listening to it), the likelihood of being adversely affected is slight. And even then it would probably have more to do with the Christian’s perception of the music (e.g., associating it with his or her past as a New Ager) than any hypnotic or occultic power in the music itself.

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