Light music is a generic term applied to a mainly British musical style of "light" orchestral music, which originated in the 19th century and had its heyday during the early to mid part of the 20th century, although arguably lasts to the present day.
The style is a less "serious" form of Western classical music, featuring through-composed, usually shorter orchestral pieces and suites designed to appeal to a wider audience than more serious compositions. The form was especially popular during the formative years of radio broadcasting. The style is also known as mood music or concert music, and is often grouped with the easy listening genre. However, "mood music" (in the United States, at least) is more often used to describe recorded music played in the background at a dinner, party, or other social occasion.
The genre has its origin in the seaside orchestras that flourished in Britain during the 19th and early 20th century. These played a wide repertoire of music, from classical music to arrangements of popular songs and ballads of the time. From this tradition came many specially written shorter orchestral pieces designed to appeal to a wider audience. Notably, even serious composers such as Sir Edward Elgar wrote a number of popular works in this medium.
However, it was in the 1930s, with the introduction of radio broadcasting by the BBC that the style found an ideal outlet, particularly after the BBC Light Programme was launched in 1945, and featured programmes such as Friday Night is Music Night and Music While You Work. The halcyon days of the genre can be said to date from this period until the early 1960s.
The light composer Ernest Tomlinson has been quoted as saying that the main distinction of light music is its emphasis on melody. This is certainly a major feature of the genre, although the creation of distinctive musical textures in scoring is another aim, for example the close harmony of Robert Farnon or Ronald Binge's "cascading string" effect, which became associated with the "sustained hum of Mantovani's reverberated violins". Often, the pieces represent a mood, place or object, for example Farnon's Portrait of a Flirt and feature musical jokes at the expense of more "serious" works. The genre's other popular title "mood music" is a reference to pieces such as Charles Williams' A Quiet Stroll, which is written at an andante pace and has a jaunty, cheery feel. Light music pieces are usually presented individually or as movements within a suite, and are often given individual descriptive titles. These titles can sometimes be unusual or idiosyncratic, such as Frederic Curzon's "Dance of the Ostracised Imp".
The music is often linked to the easy listening and beautiful music genres. In the 1950s and 60s many light composers wrote royalty-free music for use in film and television, for example Trevor Duncan's March from a Little Suite being used as the theme to Dr. Finlay's Casebook in the 1960s. Eric Coates' marches were popular choices as theme music. The "Dambusters March", possibly his most famous work, was used as the title theme to the 1954 film and has become synonymous with the film and the mission itself. Other Coates works used as theme music include "Calling All Workers" for Music While You Work, "Knightsbridge" for In Town Tonight and "Halcyon Days" as the theme to The Forsyte Saga.
Several pieces of light music are used on BBC Radio 4 to the present day, with Eric Coates's "By the Sleepy Lagoon" being the theme of Desert Island Discs, Arthur Wood's "Barwick Green" the theme of The Archers and Ronald Binge's "Sailing By" preceding the late-night shipping forecast.
During the 1960s, the style began to fall out of fashion on radio and television, forcing many light composers to re-focus their energy on writing more serious works or music for film. Robert Farnon completed several symphonies in the later part of his life, and other composers were involved in writing more serious works for the concert hall. The light composers' skills of classical orchestration and arrangement were appreciated by composers such as John Williams, with both Angela Morley and Gordon Langford asked to help orchestrate his film scores for Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial amongst others.
Many orchestras specialising in playing light music were disbanded. Small palm court orchestras, once common in hotels, seaside resorts and theatres were gradually lost in favour of recorded music. The BBC began to discard its archive of light music, much which was fortunately saved by composer Ernest Tomlinson, and is now kept at his Library of Light Orchestral Music. However, the genre was kept in the public consciousness by its use in advertisements and television programmes, perhaps as a nostalgic reference to the past.
During the 1990s, the genre began to be re-discovered, and original remastered recordings were issued on compact disc. This was followed by new recordings of light music by orchestras such as the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, the New London Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra, as well as continued public concerts by orchestras such as the Cambridge Concert Orchestra, the Scarborough Spa Orchestra and Vancouver Island's Palm Court Light Orchestra. The style also found a new home on BBC Radio 3 on Brian Kay's Light Programme, although this programme was discontinued in February 2007.
Although the genre was most prevalent in the United Kingdom, light music exists in many countries, particularly in America, which has many popular light pieces by composers such as Leroy Anderson, Ferde Grofé and George Gershwin. It can also be argued that many famous works of classical composers class as being similar to light music, for example Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. On the Continent, salon music is a variant on the genre found throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The waltzes of Johann Strauss II and his family are notable examples of early European light music, with the Straussian waltz becoming a common light music composition.
The genre is often associated with the easy-listening orchestral arrangements of Mantovani, Percy Faith and Henry Mancini, although with the exception of Mancini these composers are better known for their arrangements rather than through-composed original compositions.
In Canada, light music can still be heard on some of the radio channels that specialise in classical music. Light music, particularly the music of Robert Farnon and Leroy Anderson, is often used as background music in stores and shopping malls.
For a more expansive list, see Category:Light music composers.
Light music was often played at seaside resorts. It often consisted of arrangements for orchestra of popular songs. It was music that was supposed to be popular, music that a wide audience would be able to enjoy.
In the 1930s, when the BBC started broadcasting music on the radio (which they then called "wireless"), light music became very popular. In 1945 the BBC Light Programme was started. One very popular programme was called Friday Night is Music Night, with music played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. and Music While You Work was also a very popular programme.
Today Light Music is sometimes seen as not in fashion. Film music is more popular today, and music from musicals.
Eric Coates is a good example of a composer of Light Music. His piece "By the Sleepy Lagoon" became the signature tune of a radio programme called Desert Island Discs. Arthur Wood's "Barwick Green" became the theme of The Archers.
Light Music is similar to what is called Salon Music (German: Salonmusik) in Europe.