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Muzak Vibes in the Elevator of Life

Elevator music is dead. Long live elevator music.

by Mclean Gordon
Feb 5 2013, 8:00pm

It's a cold February morning in 1937. It's going to be a long day of mind-numbing, repetitive work at the factory, but with the global economy going the way it is, anyone pushing a broom in a shithouse is king. The drudgery of playing a thankless role as a cog in the world-industrial corpse grinder is enough to make even the cheeriest worker run headlong into a blast furnace. But wait--luckily, the benevolent minds in the control room of industry have a solution: Muzak.

Today, Muzak is a generic word for the kind of instrumental smooth jazz and light orchestral Beatles remixes heard in elevators and airports the world over. Maybe you know it as "elevator music" or "piped music." Whatever the case, prior to this week Muzak was the company that paved the way for ambient.

It all started in 1934 as a made-up corporate moniker for General George Owen Squier's wired music transmission venture. The -ak bit was a tip of the hat to the made-up-word fame of Kodak. In 1922, General Squier--incidentally also the first passenger to ride in an airplane with the Wright Brothers and one of the pioneers of the U.S. Signal Corps--had started a company to utilize his patent on telephone carrier multiplexing for the transmission of music. (As a side note, the multiplexing process allowed for the transmission of many signals over one wire, and its contribution to networking remains a cornerstone of the Internet.) The spread of radio's invisible tentacles limited the business potential for wired music distribution, so by 1936 Muzak was in need of a new marketing scheme.

Enter Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney's 1937 classic taught the world to "whistle while you work," and the era of unending background music sounded its first notes. 

Makin' bombs, listening to Muzak

Like any savvy sales team, Muzak's marketers used scientific data in their pitch to the department stores and factories they targeted as the clients of both their production and sales-enhancing ambient tunes. As a Muzak exec once told the Seattle Times:

"Research demonstrates that music prolongs the alertness of workers, relieves mental fatigue resulting from monotony and boredom, alleviates worry and keeps the mind from dwelling on petty grievances."

A 1937 study from England called "Fatigue and Boredom in Repetitive Work" claimed that music prevents boredom and raises productivity. Beginning in 1940, the BBC broadcast the program Music While You Work each day for factory workers to enjoy while they turned out wartime materials. Ahh, the line workers sighed, boredom relieved. Over the upbeat big band sounds, the bombs overhead were scarcely heard. 

As the war ended and everyone started warming up for the age of the consumer, Muzak was there to provide the soundtrack for the shopping experience. To this day, a moment of silence in a mall is the kiss of death.

Insert Muzak

Even though Muzak no longer exists as a private entity, the idea that a little atmosphere music makes pretty much any life experience bearable endures. Besides its contributions to the analysis of music for emotional effect, Muzak helped create the general expectation that media should envelop everything. The augmentation of reality remains a core component of any marketing strategy, and Muzak deserves credit as the original auditory life enhancement in the era of mass communications. Or at the very least, for making all those elevator rides a little less awkward.