Muzak: The God of Elevator Music

Elevator music is seen as a bit of a gimmick around the world, but it has a serious side. Here, we delve into Muzak, a pioneer of this scene.

When people say, “there is music all around us”, they are not kidding! Music captivates many of our lives in ways we may not even recognise. 

From the background music of grocery stores to the subtle vintage sounds of Muddy Waters in obscure European dive bars, music can be used for almost anything.

For example, have you noticed the distant ambiance sounds resonating from the speakers of an uncomfortable elevator? In the past generations, the use of Muzak in public areas such as elevators and office spaces has dramatically declined. 

According to Wikipedia, Muzak is an American brand of elevator music (background music) that predominantly played in various retail stores and public environments. Since 1954, the word Muzak has been a registered trademark.

Over time, the name became a generic term for all things background music. 

Professor Gary Gumpert of Queens College describes Muzak as “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 essence of Muzak has captivated office spaces and elevators for many years, but why is the amniotic fluid sounds of Muzak slowly disappearing?

 

 

 The History of Muzak

The concept of background music can be said to have been developed by French composer, Erik Satie. 

His monumental piece Furniture Music was created to be heard as if it did not exist. With the notion of vivid background musical implications, Muzak is considered to be a pre-cursor to ambient music. 

The Muzak sounds were organised during World War I by Major General George O. Squier, a US army’s chief signal officer: as radio was a small facet in 1920, Squier created a way of transmitting signals across electrical wires to produce the Muzak sounds. 

In 1934, he founded Wired Radio Inc, which was heavily inspired by the sounds of a music brand Kodak, thus birthing the monumental name, Muzak. 

According to WQXR.org, the company gained success through delivering recorded musical material to businesses such as hotels, exclusive clubs, and restaurants. 

Distinctively, the audio of Muzak would be hidden in discrete areas such as potted plants, which later coined the term “potted palm” music. 

However, Muzak was most famously heard through the claustrophobic walls of elevators. Elevator music humorously was used to create an awkward moment, more bearable. 

This placement of Muzak was meant to soothe the rider’s anxiety and nerves. Additionally, the beginning sounds of Muzak embodied renditions of popular songs of the decade that were arranged as background music, produced by bands and orchestras.

 

How It Started

The induction of Muzak for ambiance purposes led to the creation of Stimulus Progressions in the 1940’s. 

The Stimulus Progression produces 15-minute stretches of instrumentals of a background noise nature, to give the listeners a boost of productivity for long periods of time. 

This allowed Muzak the ability to be played in various offices and workspaces in order to boost company motivation and increase workflow. 

However, Muzak found negative attention through this endeavor as many individuals questioned this subjecting of music, causing many lawsuits during a brief time in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, individuals could not escape the soothing sounds of Muzak as it reached millions of listeners daily. 

Even during the launching of Apollo 11, astronauts were listening to Muzak as a calming factor during their flight into outer space.

 

The Fall of Muzak

 The fall of this type of music began to show in the 1990’s, as companies such as Yesco began distributing more foreground music to the masses. 

The creation of quantum modulation, which was a system of classifying music mood instead of productivity, took over the stimulus progression spot in background music. 

The company Muzak, collapsed as it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. But why has the use of Muzak slowly gone extinct? Simple. Social media. 

The use of smartphones has managed to distract and or enhance our lives in multiple ways, that the use of ambient background music, may not be as necessary. 

So, as individuals depend more on technology, the need for music throughout public spaces may not be necessary as years prior. I could recall the sounds of elevator music in my childhood fondly. 

The sounds were always a 1980’s inspired slow jam with an orchestral influence. Elevator music was one of the first variations of music where I recognised the use of music without a prominent vocalist. 

Indeed, I have noticed, as I stumble into airport elevators or public shopping malls, that the appearance of music is rapidly declining. We have formulated a way of listening to music independently through music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Soundcloud. 

However, we have seen a progression in background music through implications such as lo-fi and synth waves. It will always be considered as one of the pioneers of background music.


From elevators (or lifts) to grocery music – there is a science behind that too:

The Science Behind Grocery Store Music

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