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Ambient Music -- Nature's Sounds Put To Music

Aug 20, 2008
It's often playing in the places you go. Whether it's in an art gallery, a unique specialty shop, or a restaurant, ambient music creates a mood. This music genre has seen a growth in popularity in the last 30 years.

Ambient music relies on sound and sound patterns. It does not rely on formal, traditional musical elements in its composition. While it may include these, it is open to bending or completely doing away with any rules.

Ambient music is atmospheric in nature, in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of sound to arouse the senses. It often uses the natural environment as inspiration. A composer of this type of music may use a beautiful moonlit night as his or her basis for a sound sculpture that evokes this scene.

Ambient music has its roots in classical music. It uses elements borrowed from impressionism, musique concrete, avant-garde and minimalism. However, it is not any one of these styles more per se. It is its own animal. An understanding of these musical styles will give you a better understanding of the elements of ambient music.

Impressionism: This music draws from atmospheric effects and descriptive ideas. The sound of the wind is an atmospheric effect that can be part of a piece of music. A descriptive idea to base music on could be: "I love the way sand forms ripple patterns in a windblown desert." This word picture can inspire a composer to write an ambient piece using sound to bring images to listeners' minds.

Musique Concrete: This music relies on natural sounds from our environment. It also uses any other type of noise that one would not consider musical. Putting these sounds and noises into a composition creates a different, non-traditional music experience. For example, the sound of a jackhammer is a legitimate sound element to place into a sound recording.

Minimalism: This music is unadorned and pared down to its basics. It may use one sound pattern or an individual sound that the composer repeats continually. There may not be any complex arranging or orchestrations done to enhance this music. Often a listener hears the repetition of one entire sequence throughout a composition.

Avant-Garde: This music seeks to break through the boundaries of normal musical parameters. It operates at the extremes of conventional musical thought as it seeks to explore new territory. Avant-garde music knows the inherent rules of traditional music and then seeks to break, modify or expand on them. This is why much avant-garde music is experimental in nature. Composers of this form experiment with tempo, time, timbre, tone, and chord and scale patterns.

Therefore ambient music takes aspects of all of the above to create a hybrid music all its own. This music developed from the works of Erik Satie, Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, John Cage, Brian Eno and others. Satie's early form of this music had the unusual term, "furniture music," to describe its suitability as background music during mealtime.

However, some ambient music devotees reject the notion that ambient music is only unobtrusive, subtle, background filler. Adherents to this view see ambient music as viable music that one can appreciate and listen to as one would an intricate classical, jazz or popular piece.

Eno explained it best during his musical experimentations when he said ambient music could be "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener..." He said it exists on the cusp between melody and texture. He is credited with creating the term "ambient music."

Ambient music can be part of any environment. It's suitable as party music if you want guests to enjoy quality sounds and be able to converse with one another. It's suitable for sitting back with a drink while you're reading or just de-stressing and staring out a window. It's also music to listen to critically. One can study sound, both artificial and natural, and how they can co-exist in a composition.

If you desire to create ambient music, all you need is simple recording equipment and something to create or capture sound. You can record natural atmospheric conditions to put in your song. This could be the sound of rushing water or the cries of birds. You can record the sounds of the city: buses, children laughing, cars beeping, to inject into your music. You can play and record a musical instrument. You can modify the sound of an instrument and record its sounds. Put it all together to create the sound you desire.

Take the time to chill out and tune in to ambient music of different kinds. Explore the works of the pioneers of this musical form. Check out who's new and upcoming in the ambient music community. It's music that's adaptable, varied and able to create a mood for any occasion.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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