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What Is “Easy Listening” Music?

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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.”

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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

Due to its mellow, calming tune and romantic lyrics, “Moon River” is regarded as an example of “easy listening” music since they foster a relaxed and stress-free environment. The orchestration of the song is characterized by light, mellow instrumentation, which adds to its carefree vibe. Additionally, its success and appreciation, as seen by its Grammy and Academy Award win, confirm its status as a classic in the “easy listening” music genre.

“Rise” by Herb Alpert

Because of its relaxing and mellow instrumental tone, Herb Alpert’s “Rise” is considered easy listening music. The usage of trumpets and a slow tempo create a peaceful mood, making it suitable background music for a variety of activities. The smooth melody, combined with the cheerful pace, makes “Rise” an ideal example of the “easy listening” genre, which is distinguished by its emphasis on musical accessibility and listener enjoyment. Furthermore, its financial success (number one on the Billboard charts) demonstrates its broad appeal and popularity among listeners.

Theme from “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith

The theme from “A Summer Place” was composed for the 1959 movie “A Summer Place.” Mack Discant wrote the song’s lyrics, and Max Steiner created the music. Hugo Winterhalter first released the “Molly and Johnny Theme” as an instrumental version of the song. The most well-known rendition of the song, an instrumental orchestral arrangement by Percy Faith and his Orchestra, was published in September 1959 and spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1960. The song has been instrumentally and vocally covered by a wide range of musicians, and it has been featured in a large number of movies and television shows.

“Midnight Cowboy” Theme by John Barry

The renowned “Midnight Cowboy” theme was created by legendary composer John Barry for the 1969 film of the same name. A relaxed and carefree atmosphere is aided by the theme’s soft and comforting tune. One understated instrument employed in this song to foster a sense of coziness and intimacy is the harmonica. It’s incredibly approachable due to the beat’s and harmony’s simplicity. No matter if you’re at a dinner party or just spending a peaceful evening at home, “Midnight Cowboy” has a classic appeal that never goes out of style.

“Mas Que Nada” by Sergio Mendes

Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” is a classic example of “easy listening” music. Jorge Ben originally composed and recorded the song in 1963; Mendes and his band Brasil ’66 covered it in 1966, and it became one of their signature tunes. The 1966 version, which was more popular than the original, peaked at #47 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the Easy Listening list. The song was re-recorded by Mendes for his album “Arara” in 1989, and it was later inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013. It is also well-known in Brazil as the tune for the television show “Estrelas” on the regional network Rede Globo.

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