What Kind of Music Are You Not Supposed Hear?


By Jack

You may think that modern pop music is manufactured and unlistenable, but there actually is a style of music manufactured for the sole purpose of being unlistenable.

Muzak Holdings had music composed and recorded with the intention of no one fully listening to it.

Even if you think you’ve never heard muzak, you probably will have. It’s better known as ‘elevator music’; tinny, cheesy, crappy sounding instrumentals of pop songs, piped into shopping malls and waiting rooms and, yes, elevators. Although actually I think that’s fallen out of fashion. I can’t remember the last time I heard elevator music in an actual elevator, except in movies where it’s often used as a gag. Characters flee a hectic action scene and then spend a minute travelling up a floor with anodyne music playing.

Muzak is also used to great effect in the game Dead Rising. A copy-cat of Dawn of the Dead that pits you against hordes of the undead, the following plays near constantly over scenes of predictably graphic violence:

Quick note: ‘Muzak’ refers to the company itself, whereas ‘muzak’ is a noun used to describe their product and elevator music generally. Got it? Okay good.

‘Muzak’ was a registered trademark from the 50s, but had been active long before that. It was originally set up as a sort of competitor for public radio. The music was played via a gramophone and then delivered to workplaces via electrical wires, a service you paid for on your utility bill. Music increasing productivity at work became a popular idea. The BBC began blasting the stuff at their poor exhausted factory workers during World War Two. Slightly sketchy, given the effects of muzak on a worker’s ability to prime an artillery shell were then unknown.

They began investigating what they called ‘Stimulus Progression’, which sounds terrifying, but is actually the root of what is now known as background music. The guys at Muzak were keen on finding music that could boost productivity during the workday, a weirdly Soviet sounding idea in hindsight, but one that began to catch on.

They altered their programing so the tempo would slowly rise throughout a period of fifteen minutes, the instrumentation gradually getting bigger and brassier. There would then be a fifteen minute silence, before starting over. This sounds ridiculous in hindsight.  I’m trying to imagine how these early demos sounded, and I’m hearing a fifteen minute set beginning with Enya and ending on an apoplectic barrage of free-form jazz.

The craziness didn’t end there. Each song in rotation was given a ‘stimulus value’ between 1 – 6. A level 1 song is downbeat and moribund, a level 6 song is loud and dramatic. In one fifteen minute increment, a selection of songs would play, gradually ascending in stimulus value. I love this idea. It’s like a card game: ‘Louisiana 1927’ by Randy Newman only has 2 Stimulus Points, beaten by ‘Broken Heels’ which has 6.

Of course this sounds like total nonsense but the Muzak guys genuinely believed they were onto something here, and they weren’t alone. Dwight D. Eisenhower had muzak played in the oval office, and apparently even NASA forced their astronauts to listen to it. I can only imagine what floating in a vacuum, in the cold void of space, listening to never-ending hold music is like. The Muzak company reached maximum creepiness when they began to supply department stores with the ‘little black box’, a device that mixed muzak with underlying messages dissuading theft. The sentence “I am honest. I will not steal” was played at a barely audible volume.

Sure enough there was backlash as the public began to cotton-on the fact Muzak  were basically trying to MK Ultra them into a state of full and docile cooperation. In 1948, muzak began rotation on public transport in Washington DC. This lead to court and escalated into a legal challenge to the right to broadcast in public spaces. It reached the Supreme Court where it was defeated.

More recently Tory MP Robert Key challenged the extent to which muzak was broadcast, relaying “jolly and frivolous” evidence of people struggling to catch the waiter’s eye in a restaurant. Lord Beaumont brought it before the Lords in 2006 with similarly dry anecdotes about blood donors experiencing a spike in blood pressure due to the muzak in the hospital waiting rooms.

Why do people hate muzak? After all, there is an abundance of ambient music that sounds just like it. Moby’s ‘Play’, Brian Eno & David Byrne’s instrumental ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, these are not of a radically different sonic texture to muzak. I love both of these records, and find them relaxing rather than annoying.

You may be right in thinking these people ought to have more important things to try and ban, however their complaints all relate to the big problem people have with muzak; a loss of control. The ability to turn music on and off, to change the channel on the radio, to skip a track or switch Spotify playlists, the ability to choose, is integral to our enjoyment of music. That’s why people go to bars and clubs that best reflect their tastes. Muzak removes that level of control and may actually exert some form of control itself.

Whilst the idea of elevator music ‘brainwashing’ someone is silly, the fact it draws an emotional response at all (people went to court over this), suggests it is having an effect. Music does affect you in ways you don’t realise. When you hear classical music, you picture a concert hall and high society. When you hear French accordion music it makes you think about France. So the idea of music subconsciously putting you in a frame of mind is not so ridiculous.

Muzak Holdings is under new management, and have moved on to new interests, but their legacy lives on. People still hate the bossa-nova they play in call centre hold queues, and the new-age chilltronica looping in the Dentist’s waiting room. However, is the music the problem, or the uncomfortable and irritating surroundings with which they are associated?

Just remember, next time you’re on hold to Virgin Media, they’re trying to control your brain. With Mind Bullets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s