Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
Sometimes, you just don’t want to dance.
You want to hear some music. But you’re not…
…drunk enough for country
… high enough for reggae
… or young enough for pop.
After working all day, you’re too tired for the mental exercise of listening to intricate classical or experimental jazz or progressive rock. Heck, you’re too tired to rock at all.
You just want to hear something… nice.
It’s time for some easy listening.
Easy listening is designed to be, obviously, easy to listen to. It’s meant to soothe and relax you without necessarily calling attention to itself. Easy listening strives to sound great, and have no meaning beyond sounding great. Music like this isn’t meant to change minds like a Bob Dylan protest song. Its only raison d’etre is to be music.
However, if you do make the effort to listen closely, it’s clever, sophisticated, and beautiful.
Given this genteel and straight-laced character, it’s hard to think of easy listening as reactionary, but it’s a counter-counter-culture.
In the 1950s, blues, jazz and rock & roll steadily gained popularity. These counter-culture genres represent a grittier side of life than you might see on “Leave It To Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.” Yet these genres gradually left the underground and became the mainstream, especially rock & roll.
Easy listening is something of a reaction against all that. Many people didn’t like these new raucous sounds. They wanted new music that wasn’t much different from the old music. Relaxing, beautiful, and, in its own way, sexy.
If nothing else, the album covers often promised romance.
Easy listening took familiar melodies and stripped out any blues, jazz, and rock influences.
- It has no blue notes, which are those notes that aren’t in the song’s key.
- It has few extended chords beyond the major 7, like in jazz.
- It certainly doesn’t have rock & roll’s distorted guitars or screaming vocals.
So now that we know what easy listening isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.
It’s mid-century pop music as interpreted by European and European American arrangers and conductors.
It’s music for grown-ups with good hi-fi systems.
I’m not being facetious here. The main easy listening audience were white, middle-class, and middle-aged. They had good jobs, good homes, and good high fidelity sound systems. It wasn’t just a portable turntable like their teenage kids had in their bedrooms. It was a console or component system with multiple speakers that they could impress their guests with.
This audience had a large number of WWII veterans. They had seen their share of chaos (and might have a son fighting in Korea or Vietnam) and didn’t want busy, frantic, disturbing music in their living rooms.
The big names in easy listening were also middle-aged white guys. They were serious musicians, educated in the art, and dedicated to the craft. They were artists, but their vocabulary was limited to European music theory.
Composing and arranging are very different activities and while some great composers are great arrangers and vice versa, it’s not always the case.
It takes one kind of creativity to write a song, to come up with an original, memorable melody and its accompanying chord structure.
It takes an entirely different kind of creativity to take that tune and arrange it for an orchestra.
Composers usually write on a piano and transcribe it onto sheet music.
Arrangers read the sheet music and decide whether the melody should be played by violins or oboes or trumpets, whether the backing chords should be outlined by brass or strings or woodwinds, and whether those chords should be staccato (meaning in short notes) or legato (meaning in long notes).
In easy listening, the arranger is the star, yet he’s faceless.
If his photograph is on the album cover at all, it’s small and on the back surrounded by lots of text. Yet it’s the arranger who makes all the difference.
More often, it was the conductor’s picture on the back cover.
Sometimes the arrangers also conducted the orchestra when recording their work. Part of this was their search for perfection. Part of it was that they could get paid for conducting in addition to getting paid for arranging.
In the 1930s, Paul Weston was the arranger for Tommy Dorsey, the big band leader. Weston felt that the days of swing were coming to an end and wanted to try something else. In the 40s, he began releasing albums of what he called mood music, with titles like Music For Romancin‘, and, Music For Dreaming.
A fan told him his music “made for easy listening.” And that’s where the genre got its name.
Weston’s move from swing to easy listening was, at least in part, a business decision. Ray Conniff went so far as to research the popularity of songs getting radio airplay and high sheet music sales. He’d then arrange the most popular songs for orchestra and chorus. It didn’t necessarily matter if he liked the song personally. He arranged what he knew would sell and he became one of the most successful easy listening arrangers.
Likewise, Stu Phillips arranged several albums of easy listening Beatles covers for The Hollyridge Strings. The Beatles Song Book (Volumes 1 – 7) sold very well, and proved both that a good song will stand up to rearrangement in other styles, and that The Beatles wrote really good songs.
Plus, people bought anything that said “The Beatles” on it.
While teeny boppers bought singles, easy listening fans bought albums. Even so, a couple easy listening songs made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. If you came here from Tom Briehan’s excellent column The Number Ones over on Stereogum, you know already that Percy Faith’s Theme From ‘A Summer Place’ hit #1 in April 1960, Bert Kaempfert’s Wonderland By Night did it in January 1961, and Paul Mauriat’s Love Is Blue did in February 1968.
To my mind, Theme From ‘A Summer Place’ is the perfect example of easy listening.
With a few notable exceptions like Jackie Gleason and Liberace, most of easy listening’s biggest artists were pretty nondescript. You probably wouldn’t recognize them in the grocery store. They were simply craftsmen doing their jobs like an electrician or plumber.
It’s important to remember that arranging is hard work. We often say when watching professional athletes that they make it look easy, forgetting the hours of practice they put in. Arrangers put the same kind of effort. Making music sound easy is hard work.
But easy listening isn’t all sugary strings and softly mooing horns. Listen to the introduction of Mantovani’s version of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing. It’s so Wagnerian you can hear the Valkyries riding in.
There are a couple subgenres worth noting.
Exotica brought in Polynessian sounds, possibly because some WWII veterans served in the south Pacific. It also had a lot to do with Hawaii becoming a state in 1959. (Even though Alaska was admitted to the union that same year, it doesn’t seem to have had any influence on music.)
Bongos, slack-key guitars, and bird noises define exotica. At the same time that was happening, Hawaiian shirts, tiki bars, and mai tais became popular. It was a swinging scene, baby.
In the mid-60s, stereo sound systems became affordable, which meant stereo records had to be produced. Some labels didn’t fully embrace stereo and cheaply released stereo versions of their mono records by panning the vocals to one speaker and the instruments to the other. The first few stereo Beatles records were like this. They sound terrible.
However, the easy listening artists grasped that stereo was a great step forward and used it to its fullest. Some created records designed specifically to show off what these new stereo units could do.
My favorite among these artists is Juan Garcia Esquivel, who usually went by just his last name. His stereo-centric, and eccentric, style was later dubbed “space age bachelor pad music.” He took stereo to such an extreme that on his 1962 album Latin-Esque he used two bands. He put one in studio A and the other in studio B and recorded them at the same time using the telephone to keep both conductors in sync. Listen to the result here on Mucha Muchacha.
Stereo headphones are recommended.
When we remember music in 1966, we think about The Beatles. They released their seventh album, “Revolver,” in August on the heels of “Rubber Soul” which had come out the previous December.
However, huge as they were, they didn’t sell as many albums that year as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.
The Beatles have far outsold Alpert since then, and we barely remember easy listening when we think of 60s music. It’s possible that music written to have no meaning beyond sounding good didn’t mean enough to leave a cultural imprint.
Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 70s, easy listening was not replaced per se, but the audience transitioned over to soft rock. Performers like The Carpenters, Bread, and James Taylor sold more albums than Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini, or Percy Faith. “Beautiful music” radio stations switched formats to Adult Contemporary and MOR.
It wasn’t easy listening, but there’s nothing edgy in the middle of the road.
Since then, there’s always been music that’s an easy listen. The smooth jazz of the 1980s fits the bill. We talked about it here previously.
In the 1990s, the lounge scene was a direct response to grunge, in the same way that easy listening was a response to rock & roll.
Bands like Combustible Edison and Pink Martini, and ironic releases like Prozak For Lovers took a laid back approach to, well… everything.
With ambient electronic music and downtempo in the 21st Century, laptops have taken the place of orchestras but the music serves the same need.
We all want to chill out sometimes, take our shoes off, cuddle with someone we love, and maybe have a mai tai.
Here’s to the good life.
Moonlight In Vermont
– Paul Weston and His Orchestra, featuring singer Jo Stafford, who was also Weston’s wife
The Poor People Of Paris
– Les Baxter
The Song From Moulin Rouge (Where Is Your Heart)
– Percy Faith
– Perry Como
– Martin Denny
– Robert Drasnin
– Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
– The Hollyridge Strings, arranged by Stu Phillips
Love Is Blue
– Paul Mauriat
The Millionaire’s Holiday
– Combustible Edison
– Prozak For Lovers
– Craig Armstrong
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