JOYS OF AMBIENT MUSIC
(c)2009 by Michael Riversong
Music is used for many purposes. Most people are familiar with concert settings, where every note has been carefully rehearsed beforehand, all the arrangements are tight, and plenty of practiced showmanship is evident. Other uses include small gatherings such as weddings, initiation ceremonies, and banquets. Specific musical healing sessions are known throughout much of the world, but are still somewhat rare in America and Western Europe.
Then there is background music. In India this idea was from ancient times well known among the wealthiest people. A formal classical style evolved using normally 3 or 4 musicians who performed by improvisation within set structures. These ensembles could supply backgrounds to almost any activity according to ancient rules of harmony and timing. Audiences often consisted of less than 10 people. This has become one notable tradition of ambient music, which means that it is specifically designed to be an enhancement to an environment and not a focus of attention.
Throughout most of human history, most music has been made up on the spot for the occasion. This applies to many diverse forms, styles, moods, tempos, and ethnicities. Written music with clear, strict structure that's played the same way every time is relatively rare. In Europe, written music has only been around in its present form for about 500 years. There is a European tradition of improvised ambient music known as "Chamber Music" which dates back to the 1200s and possibly earlier. After around 1600 much of that form became written just like orchestral and choral pieces.
Sometimes notation left from ancient systems is cryptic and incomplete. In these cases it is usually impossible to know whether these were part of some formal structure, or frameworks for improvisation, much like American jazz 'fake books'. These are large books filled with usually illegal versions of simple sheet music which are specifically intended for improvisation.
Historically most ambient music was either fully or partially improvised. An exception was the "Mood Music" or "Easy Listening" genre popular in America and Western Europe from the 1930s through the mid-80s. This particular genre can be traced directly to orchestral chord forms pioneered by Debussy (1862-1918) and other French composers of the late 1800s. As Big Band music developed in America, a few bands turned to these formats as the basis of their work. They were noted for unusually strict arrangements as compared to most groups of the time. Examples were Guy Lombardo from Canada, Paul Whiteman from Colorado, Frank Mills from Germany, Stanley Black, Ted Heath, and Frank Chacksfield from England. Eventually Easy Listening music encompassed arrangements of source material from many ethnic traditions. Its formats and customs are present in most areas of this planet now in one form or another.
Beginning in the 1970s with pioneers such as Steven Halpern, Constance Demby, Tangerine Dream, Keith Jarrett, and Dean & Dudley Evenson, another type of ambient music developed. This was commonly called "New Age", a generic term that most people despised. Other terms suggested and sometimes used for this genre include "Adult Alternative", “Space Music”, "Soundscape", and "Extended Classical". Now, most music programmers simply prefer the term "Ambient", which is how it can most easily be found on the Internet.
Rules for contemporary ambient music are strict, just like those for any other genre. Dissonance is rarely used. Heavy rhythms are also rare. Melodic and harmonic structures can be derived from almost any ethnic background worldwide. Improvisation around themes is possible but not always necessary. Most performances are by soloists or ensembles with less than 5 members.
Computers are often used in contemporary ambient music. By using computers, it is possible for a soloist to create richly layered textures. Examples of solo performers who use computers extensively are Vangelis and Ray Lynch. Some musicians such as Steven Halpern will use computer backgrounds and improvise over them in live performances. The use of computers has spawned a specialty called Tone Coloring which is more deeply explored in other works. This means the study and application of electronic parameters to shape musical tones for specific purposes and effects.
Some people find contemporary ambient music annoying because melodies can be indistinct and underlying structure is often subtle. Others find these same characteristics to be relaxing. Many experiments have determined that this type of music has many specific uses in healing practice, ranging from massage therapy all the way to treating people in comas. In any event, it is clear that contemporary ambient music has many uses and draws upon long and solid historical foundations.
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