What Is “Easy Listening” Music?

Have you encountered a piece of particular music on the radio – something that’s pleasant enough to the ears but not too intrusive to demand your attention? If that’s the kind of music you’ve heard, it may be classified as “easy listening.”

What defines “easy listening” music?

Easy listening music is designed to be soothing, relaxing, and pleasing to the ears. A significant portion of easy listening music are instrumentals, although some easy listening numbers feature wordless vocals and even lyrics.

But unlike jazz or classical music, which demands the listener’s full attention, easy listening music slips into the background. That is the reason why music critics dismiss easy listening music as predictable and disposable.

Easy listening music encompasses instrumental recordings of hit songs, pop standards, folk and even rock songs. It is usually concentrated on melodies and lush, sumptuous arrangements.

According to Jackie Gleason, a master of easy listening music, the genre is a “musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive.” That is true. Perhaps it’s the chief benefit of easy listening: the music is relegated to the background, which can help you get through in your everyday tasks, from doing the homework to doing the laundry, or hobbies such as reading or knitting.

The term “easy listening” is interchangeable with other genres, such as:

  • Orchestral pop
  • Adult contemporary
  • Beautiful music
  • Middle-of-the-road (MOR)
  • Pop standard
  • Elevator music
  • Muzak
  • Lounge music
  • Light music
  • Mood music
  • Exotica
  • Chamber pop

However, some of these abovementioned genres bear no more than a modest and passing resemblance to easy listening. Lounge music, for example, is meant to be enjoyed rather than as a background sound. On the other hand, exotica features more unusual arrangements. As the name implies, it is the Western approximation of native or indigenous music, usually that of the different regions such as Africa or the Caribbean. Orchestral pop is pop music with an orchestral arrangement – it’s pop music with big, lush sounds. Unlike easy listening, which usually has no vocals or features only wordless vocals, orchestral pop music always consists of real songs, with intelligible lyrics.

Easy listening is usually tagged as “with strings.” The origins of easy listening trace back to the 1930s when strings were used in “sweet bands,” whose music became the popular sound during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Strings became more dominant during the 1940s and the 1950s when jazz and standard pop music acts began to incorporate them into their own material.

The genre enjoyed its biggest success during the 1950s through the 1970s. When folk, rock and roll and pop music dominated the charts, easy listening acts capitalized on them by arranging and recording covers of the biggest chart hits of the day to win a new generation of listeners. It was not unusual for easy listening instrumental singles to place on Billboard’s Hot 100, and many of them even topped the charts and became big sellers.

Good examples of “easy listening” music:

“Moon River” by Henry Mancini

“Rise” by Herb Alpert

Theme from “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith

“Midnight Cowboy” Theme by John Barry

“Mas Que Nada” by Sergio Mendes