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The origins of easy listening music

The term “easy listening” music encompasses a range of musical styles and myriad artists whose sounds are defined by gentler, melodic compositions and non-rock vocals. It is a general phrase for more adult or mature music, rather than a particular era, and often once-considered harder-edged artists can become easy listening artists over time. A good example is how the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, eventually had some of his songs relegated to the easy listening charts.

It started with strings

Easy listening music can trace its roots to just after World War II and the rise in popularity of string instruments in jazz and contemporary recordings. As rock and roll was taking the kids by storm, the parents and older generation went the opposite way, staying home to watch band leader Lawrence Welk or listen to recordings by Guy Lombardo.

The crooners hit the stage

The period between the 1940s to the 1960s saw the rise of the dreamy, deep voiced vocalists we often call “crooners,” such as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and more. They delivered love songs and softer ballads that topped the Billboard charts and made women swoon. The majority of these balladeers were crossover artists, bridging the gap between jazz and pop with softer interpretations of compositions. This was the era of the true lounge singer.

The instrumental revolution

In the 1960s another style of easy listening was gaining popularity – the instrumental. Much like the “Muzak” people were hearing in elevators (and, incidentally, “elevator music” can very much be lumped into the catchall “easy listening” category) the genre of easy listening started losing its vocals while bumping up the orchestral sounds. Bands were now creating easy listening instrumental covers of popular songs, and record buyers were eating it up. These were the days of composers Ray Conniff and Henry Mancini, most known for his iconic Pink Panther theme music, but who also scored the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Soft rock and adult contemporary

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the term easy listening replaced with “adult contemporary” and now encompassed any softer rock music from the past 40 years, as well as the instrumental and orchestral covers and crooner favourites. Adult contemporary was quite mainstream in this era, as top acts such as Elton John, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and other singer-songwriters elevated the genre with reflective love songs and ballads. Performers such as Linda Ronstadt emerged during this era, as did the legendary Barbara Streisand, Christopher Cross, as well as instrumental-influenced groups like Chicago.

Easy listening into the future

Today, you’ll find many artists and types of music lumped together into the easy listening/adult contemporary genre. You can call it lounge music, elevator music or cocktail music. You may even call it your parent’s or grandparent’s music. But, no matter if it is Lawrence Welk and Frank Sinatra or Kenny G and Michael Bolton lulling you with dulcet instrumentals, or Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston or Celine Dion gently belting out a softer love song, it’s all just easy listening music.