“Elevator Going Down: The Story of Muzak” by Luke Baumgarten


Luke Baumgarten has a fascinating article on the history of muzak in “Elevator Going Down: The Story of Muzak” published at Red Bull Music Academy.

In the 40s, Muzak got more deliberate about the type and tempo of the music it piped, trademarking “Stimulus Progression”, which gradually amped up the tempo and intensity of its easy listening in 15-minute intervals. The company used only instrumental music, because it was thought that lyrics might knock a worker or a patron out of the rhythm of building or buying or whatever activity the Muzak was piped in to encourage. A raft of in-house research swore that the results of such stimulus was too incredible to ignore. In thewords of the New Yorker, “It was pseudoscience, but it remained alive at the company until the late nineties, partly because it was a useful marketing tool and partly because it seemed so plausible: most people really were happier and more productive when there was something humming along in the background.”

Soon, background music was everywhere, according to Joseph Lanza, author ofElevator Music, an exhaustive Muzak history and hagiography. Muzak was piped into offices, department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, factories and even a few elevators. As Lanza says, “It became a pervasive soundtrack for much of American life.”

And whether or not the company’s science was sound, it was self-fulfilling. Easy listening became a thing people wanted in their homes. In the 40s, record companies began following Muzak’s lead, putting out albums “of soft, melodic instrumental versions of popular tunes, usually with shimmering strings, along with pianos, guitars, or horns to bring out the main melody,” Lanza told us by phone. The classic mood music motif was in place from very early on, and became intertwined with a certain mode of pop music through the 50s and 60s, when, according to Lanza, “massed strings became the musical currency for many popular recordings as well as movie soundtracks [and] likewise became the bulk of Muzak’s output.”

The rest of the article can be found here.


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