Hmmm, the hard one first...
The term "New Age" was around in the 60's and used by sociologists to describe the younger generations's fascination with alternative lifestyle. The term "New Age Music" seemed to become more common in the late 70's/early 80's for music that was very melodic and primarily instrumental, often used during meditation and visualisation sessions. Also the main outlets were new age/alternative shops with most new age albums being released by small independant companies.
However, it seems that as this type of music has grown in popularity and, by the diverse conversations in r.m.n, the new age music umbrella has spread wider and wider to cover a variety of styles including electronic/space music, jazz, contemporary classical, celtic and world music. The main criteria is for it to be mainly instrumental though Timothy Kelly at Midivox (firstname.lastname@example.org) raises some good points...
"Actually any definition of new age music that just refers to some sort of instrumental music is not a good way of defining new age music.
When new age started being used a lot a couple of decades ago, it referred not to whether the music was instrumental, vocal, or mixed but new age referred to the reasons the music was being written and the effects the composer wanted to have on the listener.
New age composers had spiritual purposes and effects in their music. Talked about uplifting the listener beyound the physical world, getting in touch with ones inner spiritual self for healing, etc.
This was quite different from the sex, drugs, and tragic death purposes of a very physical rock and roll, and the emotional goals of much depressing country and western music that existed just to sell lots of alcohol.
It was the purposes and goals of this new group of composers and performers that led to the music being called new age. Later as more and more variety came into the independent labels and as more composers starting putting out their own recording, often anything not mainstream according to the record company execs etc, was simply labeled new age.
Now almost every decent record store has a large new age section. Much is instrumental. Much is not. The best stuff still has spiritual purposes beyond the physical effects that the composer wants the listener to experience."
As Timothy mentioned one problem with defining new age music is the high street record shop. In the U.K. it is very uncommon to find a large selection of new age albums. The selection's you do find are quite often small and a little confusing - the idea seeming to be "If there's no words and the tracks are longer than 5 minutes each then it must go under New Age". So you could easily find in the one area Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and the Orb along side Enya, Tim Wheater and a sampler album from Windham Hill! Out of all that Tim Wheater, the flautist, would probably be the only one to agree that they made new age music. (For more interpretations, written by readers of r.m.n., of just what new age music is click here.)
So you see it is very difficult to say just what is and what isn't new age music. If this FAQ can't help then feel free to ask about any artist you think may belong in R.M.N. If he or she doesn't belong then someone will be pleased to point you in the right direction.
Other interesting articles worth reading are:
"New Age Music Made Simple" by Stephen Hill http://www.hos.com/simple.html "Inside the Music" articles by John Diliberto http://www.echoes.org/de.inside.html and The "Echoes Glossary" http://www.echoes.org/de.glossary.html