Light music

The Scarborough Spa Orchestra, the last surviving professional seaside orchestra, give a concert of light music in August 2009

Light music is a generic term applied to a mainly British musical style of "light" orchestral music, which originated in the 19th century and continues until the present day. Its heyday occurred during the mid‑20th century.[1][2]

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, with stations such as the BBC Light Programme featuring a playlist largely consisting of light compositions.

Occasionally known as mood music or concert music, light music is often grouped with the easy listening genre, albeit this designation is misleading.[3] Although mainly a British phenomenon, light music was also popular in the United States and in continental Europe, and many compositions in the genre are still familiar through their use as film, radio and television themes.


Before Late Romantic orchestral trends of length and scope separated the trajectory of lighter orchestral works from the Western Classical canon, classical composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Joseph Haydn won as much fame for writing lighter pieces such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as for their symphonies and operas. Later examples of early European light music include the operettas of composers such as Franz von Suppé or Sir Arthur Sullivan; the Continental salon and parlour music genres; and the waltzes and marches of Johann Strauss II and his family.[4] The Straussian waltz became a common light music composition (note for example Charles Ancliffe's "Nights of Gladness" or Felix Godin's "Valse Septembre"). These influenced the foundation of a "lighter" tradition of classical music in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The light-music genre as it is currently recognised probably has its origin in the seaside orchestras that flourished in Britain during the 19th and early 20th century.[5] 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, such as the "Salut d'Amour", the Nursery Suite, and Chanson de Matin.[5] The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham became famous for concluding his otherwise serious orchestral concerts with what he termed "lollipops", meaning less serious, short or amusing works chosen as a crowd-pleasing encore.[6] Influenced by the earlier "promenade concerts" held in London pleasure gardens, a similar spirit embued many of Henry Wood's early Queen's Hall Proms concerts, especially the "Last Night".[7]

However, in the late 1920s with the introduction of radio broadcasting by the BBC the style found an ideal outlet. This increased after the launch of the BBC Light Programme in 1945, featuring programmes such as Friday Night is Music Night and Music While You Work. The halcyon days of the genre date from this period until the early 1960s.[8]


The cover of Eric Coates's autobiography, featuring a facsimile of a motif in his Knightsbridge March. Coates is often considered the "King of Light Music"[9]

The light composer Ernest Tomlinson has been quoted as saying that the main distinction of light music is its emphasis on melody.[10] 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 later became associated with the "sustained hum of Mantovani's reverberated violins".[11] Lyndon Jenkins describes the genre as "original orchestral pieces, often descriptive but in many cases simply three or four minutes of music with an arresting main theme and a contrasting middle section."[5]

David Ades suggests that "it is generally agreed that it occupies a position between classical and popular music, yet its boundaries are often blurred".[12] He goes on to cite broadcaster Denis Norden who said that light music was "not just tuneful round the outside, but tuneful right through."[12]

Often, the pieces represent a mood, place, person or object, for example Farnon's "Portrait of a Flirt", Albert Ketèlbey's In a Monastery Garden or Edward White's "Runaway Rocking Horse".[13] 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.[14] 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".[15]

In keeping with this tradition of levity, pieces can also feature musical jokes at the expense of more "serious" works, such as Eric Fenby's overture Rossini on Ilka Moor[16] or Arthur Wilkinson's Beatlecracker Suite, which arranges songs by The Beatles in the style of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.[17]

Although the genre was most prevalent in the United Kingdom, the light music tradition exists in many countries, particularly in the United States, which has many popular light pieces by composers such as Leroy Anderson, Ferde Grofé and George Gershwin. These are often associated with the "pops orchestra" tradition (such as the famous Boston Pops Orchestra).

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.[11] As a result of this association, the music is sometimes linked to the lounge music, Exotica or beautiful music genres, although this is misleading, as the genre never features vocals, synthesisers or popular music instruments.[5][18]

As film, radio and television themes

In the 1950s and '60s many light composers wrote Production Library music for use in film, radio and television, and as a result, many light music compositions are familiar as theme music, an example being Trevor Duncan's March from a Little Suite, used by the BBC as the theme to Dr. Finlay's Casebook in the 1960s, or Edward White's "Puffin' Billy" being the theme to both the BBC radio series Children's Favourites and the CBS children's programme Captain Kangaroo.

Eric Coates' marches in particular 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.[19] 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.

Coates was also commissioned to write original marches for television stations including the "BBC Television March", ATV's "Sound and Vision March" and Associated Rediffusion's "Music Everywhere". Other noteworthy television startup themes include William Walton's Granada Preludes, Call Signs and End Music for Granada Television, Richard Addinsell's Southern Rhapsody for Southern Television, Ron Goodwin's Westward Ho! for Westward Television and John Dankworth's Widespread World for Rediffusion London.[20]

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.

Decline and resurgence

During the 1960s, the style began to fall out of fashion on radio and television, forcing many light composers to refocus their energy on writing more serious works or music for film. Robert Farnon completed several symphonies in the later part of his life, as well as composing for television, for example Colditz.[21] 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.[22][23]

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 of which was fortunately saved by composer Ernest Tomlinson and is now kept at his Library of Light Orchestral Music.[24] However, the genre was kept in the public consciousness by its use in advertisements and television programmes, often used as a nostalgic evocation of the 1940s and 1950s.[8]

During the 1990s, the genre began to be re-discovered and original remastered recordings by orchestras such as the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra were issued on compact disc for the first time.[25] 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.[26][27] In 2007, BBC Four broadcast an evening of light music as part of a themed evening celebrating British culture between 1945 and 1955, which included Brian Kay's documentary Music for Everybody and a televised version of Friday Night is Music Night.[28]

In the UK, U.S. and Canada, light music can still be heard on some of the radio channels that specialise in classical music, for example Classic FM[29] and XLNC1.[30] A nationwide participatory festival of light music called "Light Fantastic" was organised by BBC Radio 3 in June 2011 as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the 1951 Festival of Britain.[31] This included events in London, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, from both professional and amateur ensembles, including a live revival of Music While You Work from a factory in Irlam near Manchester, several light music concerts from the Southbank Centre and a number of documentaries about the genre.[32]

Light music is also frequently used as incidental music in radio and television programmes, for example Charles Williams' "Devil's Galop" (once famous as the theme to Dick Barton: Special Agent) is now often used in spoofs of 1950s action programmes, such as Mitchell and Webb's The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar sketches.[33] Mitchell and Webb also use Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" as the theme music of their radio sketch show.[34]

One place that has, however, famously weathered the vagaries of fashion and kept the "Palm Court" tradition alive is the Pump Room in Bath. First opened in 1704 and then rebuilt in the 1790s, it has been famous both as a social meeting place and for public concerts throughout much of its existence. The Pump Room Orchestra was disbanded in the 1940s but, soon after World War II ended, a piano trio became a daily feature of life in the Pump Room and has been ever since to this very day, performing once or twice daily every day of the year bar Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Notable composers

There are hundreds of composers who can be considered to have written "light music", although composers whose oeuvre focussed primarily on lighter works include Charles Ancliffe, Ronald Binge, Eric Coates, Frederic Curzon, Trevor Duncan, Robert Farnon, Adalgiso Ferraris, Ron Goodwin, Albert Ketèlbey, Billy Mayerl, Angela Morley, Ernest Tomlinson, Sidney Torch, Edward White, Charles Williams, Alberto Semprini and Haydn Wood. Each of these composers worked during the "golden age" of light music from roughly 1920-1960.[35][36]

See also


  1. Geoffrey Self, Light Music in Britain Since 1870: A Survey (Ashgate, 2001)
  2. Lamb, Andrew (2002). British light music: sound good, feel good, Gramophone November 2002, pp.34–38, accessed 12 September 2011.
  3. "Expired website - This website has expired".
  4. H. E. Jacob, Johann Strauss - Father and Son - A Century of Light Music, 1977, ISBN 978-0-8369-5701-3
  5. 1 2 3 4 Lyndon Jenkin's CD notes to "British Light Music" (EMI)
  6. EMI CD CDM 7 63412 2, published in 1991.
  7. Proms 2010: Last Night of the Proms 1910 Style, accessed 18 November 2010
  8. 1 2 Brian Kay: "Music Everywhere" (2005 BBC Television programme)
  9. Eric Coates: The King of Light Music, BBC Radio 4, 23 February 2008
  10. "Brian Kay in conversation with Ernest Tomlinson", on Brian Kay's Light Programme, 17 February 2005
  11. 1 2 Lanza, Joseph (2004). Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-listening, and Other Moodsong. University of Michigan Press. p. 80. ISBN 0-472-08942-0.
  12. 1 2 David Ades, notes to The Great British Light Experience, EMI, 1997 (724356667624), p.4
  13. "Edward White: The Runaway Rocking Horse", Land of Lost Content, accessed 15 November 2010
  14. Charles Williams, Robert Farnon Society, accessed 15 November 2010
  15. Dance of the Ostracized Imp, Classical Midi, accessed 15 November 2010
  16. Fenby: Rossini on Ilkla Moor,, accessed 15 November 2010
  17. Beatlecracker Suite, Music Makes Me, accessed 15 November 2010
  18. What is Light Music?, Classic Themes, accessed 15 November 2010
  19. Jonathan Glancey (2003-05-06). "Bombs away". The Guardian.
  20. Roddy Buxton, "Tiptoe through the Startups", Transdiffusion
  21. "Expired website - This website has expired".
  22. Angela Morley obituary,
  23. "".
  24. The Library of Light–Orchestral Music
  25. Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, Robert Farnon Society, accessed 16 November 2010
  26. Brian Kay's Light Programme website, a former light music programme on BBC Radio 3.
  27. "Expired website - This website has expired".
  28. The Lost Decade, BBC Four, accessed 16 November 2010
  29. Wednesday 16 June - A Light Music Spectacular, Classic FM, accessed 20 November 2010
  30. XLNC1 programming philosophy
  31. BBC Press Release, 19 January 2011
  32. Light Fantastic website, BBC Radio 3
  33. Sir Digby Chicken Caesar Tune, accessed 20 November 2010
  34. British Comedy Guide, URL accessed 9 January 2014
  35. The Robert Farnon Society, biographies of notable light music composers and arrangers, accessed 16 November 2010
  36. Philip Scowcroft's "Garland" collection, accessed 16 November 2010

External links

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