History of Muzak: Where Did All The Elevator Music Go?
Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 03:00 PM
By Jennifer Gersten
Of Muzak, Professor Gary Gumpert of Queens College, in a 1990 interview for Britain’s Channel 4, said: “[it’s] a kind of amniotic fluid that surrounds us; and it never startles us, it is never too loud, it is never too silent; it’s always there.”
The sounds frequently referred to as elevator music are, at least officially, no more; over five years ago the company folded in a deal with its new owner, Mood Music. Muzak often amounted to the sonic equivalent of a Pan-Am smile, inspiring the listener to a bland, blinkered contentedness. In part, its reputation has obscured much of what made the company viable, and the extent to which its style fed others in its wake.
The concept of background music owes much of its development to French composer Erik Satie. His piece “Furniture Music” was meant to be played “as if it did not exist,” to be construed as a facet of the environment and no more. While Muzak is considered a precursor — if a canned, inept one — to ambient music as later defined by composers like Brian Eno and Pauline Oliveros, it was originated as only a means to a musical end. Muzak was the invention of Major General George O. Squier, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer during World War I. Radio was still a fledgling art in the 1920s, difficult and expensive to manage, so Squier created a way of transmitting signals across electrical wires, no radio necessary. In 1934, he founded his company, Wired Radio Inc.; inspired by the sound of another successful company called “Kodak,” he later named it “Muzak.”
The company found a niche delivering recorded music to businesses, particularly hotels, restaurants and exclusive clubs, where speakers playing Muzak were so often hidden among large potted plants that people called it “potted palm” music. Muzak found particular utility in elevators, where its dulcet tones soothed riders’ nerves, and came to be known and scorned as “elevator music.” But its initial offerings consisted largely of popular songs of the day that had been arranged as background music and performed by well-known orchestras and bands, as well as popular artists such as Fats Waller and Xavier Cugot.
In the 1940s, buffeted by research indicating that music had a physiological influence upon behavior, Muzak introduced the Stimulus Progression: 15-minute stretches of background instrumentals meant to give the listener a boost of productivity over the course of an hour.
The Stimulus Progression’s scientific salience remained dubious, yet the company made much hullabaloo about its merits when implemented in the workplace, and the product grew popular. The Muzak executive David O’Neill highlighted the Progression’s benefits for the average factory and office employee: “When the employee arrives in the morning, he is generally in a good mood, and the music will be calm. Toward ten thirty, he begins to feel a little tired, tense, so we give him a lift with the appropriate music. Toward the middle of the afternoon, he is probably feeling tired again: we wake him up again with a rhythmic tune, often faster than the morning’s.” Questions of whether subjecting people to music they hadn’t asked for — as well as whether that music had a secretly subliminal effect — began to spring, occasioning a lawsuit during the brief time in the 1950s that Muzak was piped in on Washington D.C.’s buses and trains. (For more on the societal and cultural influence of Muzak, check out Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong.)
A Muzak Stimulus Progression chart from the 1950’s as cited by the Nmediac journal. (Brian Walsh)
During its height in the ’60s and ’70s, Muzak was inescapable, reaching tens of millions of listeners each day. On the launch of Apollo 11, the astronauts listened to Muzak to calm themselves. Pierre Salinger, John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, wrote in a letter to The Musical Times in 1961 that “The President does have some Muzak played on his plane. He enjoys having a musical background at almost any time and likes a wide variety of music ranging from classical to popular.” “Muzak fills the deadly silences,” went one of the company’s slogans; another was that Muzak “is more than music,” in that it was a kind of “science” capable of making people feel better and work harder.
A Muzak print ad from the 1960s. (public domain)
The notion of music designed exclusively for background purposes began to falter in the 1990s, when companies like Yesco began curating foreground music, playlists for companies that were composed of popular music, not kitschy covers. Subsequently, Muzak found that it had cemented a reputation as a producer of uniquely bland, blippy noises that incurred no negligible amount of dread in hapless bystanders. In the 1990s, the notion of the stimulus progression was phased out for “quantum modulation,” a system of classifying music that emphasized not productivity but mood. Unlike playlists composed according to the stimulus progression that were designed to amplify one’s productivity, playlists composed according to quantum modulation were meant to keep audiences’ moods stable with songs of similar character. Muzak’s engineers restyled themselves as “Audio Architects” crafting sonic “atmospherics” for retail environments that were intended to dramatically offset the store from the surrounding area, inducting the customer into a way of life for the duration of her stay in the store.
Racking up debts, many of which were owed to creditors, Muzak filed for bankrupcy in 2009. It was saved the following year by Mood Media, which preserved elements of the original company but chose to rename it in 2013, consigning the name to history. Yet the influence of Muzak lives on, notably in what it helped us realize: that we cannot help but yield to music, even at its worst.
"Elevator Music,” however, might help reinvigorate discussion on how best to put the legacy of Muzak to good use.
Watch a clip from Thank You For Listening, a documentary on Muzak, here.
TAGS: culture arts and media history music muzak
MORE IN: WQXR Blog
Jennifer Gersten is a freelance writer and musician.