Different styles of music have different "sounds." We can all pretty much agree on that point. For example, Jazz uses seventh chords almost exclusively. This, and the kind of chord progressions used in Jazz gives it its unique flavor. But what about new age music? Does it have it's own special ingredients? Yes it does.
Now, there are no hard and fast rules here but for the most part, new age music is a consonant music. That is, there is little or noharshness going on in the music. No Saxes wailing and what not. Having said that we can eliminate most of the tense jazz chords and their voicing. So what are we left with? Mostly Major and minor chords based on the regular scales and the modes. The chord progressions are simpler and usually start on the l chord. No ll-V-l progressions here.
What about melody? In jazz, we have a soloist who usually plays a lot of chromatic notes. This is rare in new age music because it would create dissonance. New age melodies tend to be softer and more on the spiritual side. Solos, if there are any, are not so much concerned with the expression of the self than they are with letting the music express itself. A subtle but very important distinction. Jazz players may have some ego invested in their performance. New age musicians learn to let the music play them. They learn to become a channel for the music itself allowing it to speak through them. Of course, I'm not saying that this can't happen in Jazz, but, just watch a Jazz performer and you'll see what I mean.
Last but not least is rhythm. Let's do a comparison/contrast between Jazz and New Age music. Jazz has a definite discernible rhythm. It is what makes Jazz Jazz. New age music can have a pattern or an underlying rhythm to the music. It can be used to create trance like states in the listener. Drums are usually a part of Jazz music. Percussion is mostly absent from the New Age sound simply because it would not add to the atmosphere most New Age musicians create. Timing is very important to the Jazz musician. The soloist has the freedom to play whatever he wants as long as he maintains the meter and stays in time. New Age music is more elastic in that timing is there, but is not a master of the player. The New Age player can disregard time altogether. Just listen to Zen flute music as a good example of this.
Now, what does all this mean for the aspiring New Age musician? A couple of good things. It means that there is a definite new age "sound" out there. That it is here to stay and that people like and need to hear it. And it means that there are some guidelines out there for what defines the meaning of New Age music.
Edward Weiss is a pianist/composer and webmaster of Quiescence Music's online piano lessons. He has been helping students learn how to play piano in the New Age style for over 14 years and works with students in private, in groups, and now over the internet. Stop by now at http://www.quiescencemusic.com/piano_lessons.html for a FREE piano lesson!