This episode was written and produced by Carolyn McCulley.
“Elevator music” was once the sound of restaurants, offices, and elevators in mid-20th century America. But ironically these bland, string-driven instrumental tracks are never heard in elevators anymore. In this episode, we speak with Joseph Lanza, the author of “Elevator Music,” and Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency, about the sound of Muzak -- the company that changed the way we think public spaces should sound.
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View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: elevator button press, elevator door opening, pressing floor button, elevator door closing, muzak playing in background]
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor.
What came to be called “elevator music” is almost never heard in elevators today. So how did it earn the name “elevator music”? This is the story of Muzak—a company that changed the way public spaces sound.
Joseph: I like the term "Elevator Music.” I don't think there's anything inherently pejorative about it, because it's music that's supposed to elevate people's moods.
That’s Joseph Lanza. He is the author of the book, “Elevator Music.” His book explores the history of the Muzak company and the genre of music it promoted—called Easy Listening. You’re hearing one of those tracks right now. It’s from one of their “Stimulus Progression” albums. ...but, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Joseph.
Joseph: It was a musical currency that started in the ‘40s and but it went on through the ‘50s. And then when music changed a bit – when you had more electric guitars and drums—then Easy Listening adapted to it, as well.
One of the major Pioneers of the easy listening genre was composer Percy Faith, here is a snippet from one of his most iconic compositions “Theme from a Summer Place” recorded in 1959.
Joseph: Usually it was strings. A lot of strings were supplying the top melody, the vocal melody. I don’t think many people disliked it as much as people want to believe today. It was just very sweet, pretty music and you would often hear it in actual pop songs.
But this sweet, pretty music actually had a grim origin [music stop suddenly/record scratch]—the Muzak company got its start on the battlefield.
[Troops marching music SFX]
Major General George Squier served as the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer during World War One. That wartime work later on led him to develop a way to transmit music across electrical wires. So General Squier founded a company to send businesses and residences music via a wired system. It was a great idea. But—like many business owners discover the hard way—it rolled out a bit too late. When Squier was ready to launch his company in the mid 30’s, wireless radio was already dominating the market. So, he had to pivot.
[marching music out]
[music from beginning + add Restaurant SFX :10 later]
His new business plan was to deliver background music to restaurants, stores, office buildings and yes, [elevator ding – SFX] to elevators. The idea was that this music would calm the nerves of jittery riders in modern high-rise elevators.
Joseph: When the electronic elevator first came about, some people were afraid to enter it. Especially in the New York area where you had these skyscrapers coming up in the ‘30s. So, they called it elevator music—maybe because they could hear it more, because they were in this confined space. So, from the ceiling you would probably hear this melody. But those melodies were in hotel lobbies, restaurants, supermarkets, doctor's offices, all sorts of places.
The music that seems so bland to us now was the stuff of the future in the 1920s. In fact, General Squier named the new company Muzak—as a hat tip to the innovative film company he admired, Kodak.
Joseph: One of the inspirations for that was a novel by Edward Bellamy called Looking Backward. It was a science fiction vision of a wonderful future where technology does wonderful things. And one of the features was every room will be fashioned with a little dial where you can just turn on music of various moods. So, that's what got it going. What we know as elevator music today—which is primarily these instrumental versions of pop tunes—that science really started coming about more in the ‘40s.
[Music in/nat sound :00 to :08 of patriotic music and the announcer’s voice in a World War 2 news reel: “America Goes to War!”]
Muzak was an idea borne out of World War 1. But the company saw a new opportunity during the manufacturing boom of World War 2. Muzak wanted to use music to motivate workers.
Joseph: There was a guy who was a Muzak programmer who was also a very famous big band musician named Ben Selvin. He gave a paper to the Acoustical Society of America, and he was talking about what the ideal industry and workplace music would be. And that's where he said that instrumental only would be the best thing and not overly arranged.
Ben not only suggested the type of music to be played, but he also suggested how this music should be programmed throughout the day. Muzak called it Stimulus Progression, a concept they patented. The music you’re hearing right now is one of those tracks. Stimulus Progression was a block of instrumental background music that gradually increased in pace and gave workers a sense of forward movement. Muzak claimed that when workers listened to the music, they got more work done. This block of music was then followed by a period of silence. Company-funded research showed that alternating music with silence reduced listener fatigue. And that, they claimed, made the "stimulus" part of Stimulus Progression more effective. Now, let’s fast forward the track we’ve been listening to so we can hear how the pace as picked up a bit.
Joseph: It was the only company at the time, I believe, that was involved in the commercial world that was really thinking about ecology of music. In 1967, they had a scientific board of advisors and there was this doctor who put forward this paper called The Ecologic of Muzak saying that there's certain types of music that are more beneficial for the workaday world.
So, there's public music and there's private music, and I think Muzak was trying to fill that void of what public music would sound like.
Unfortunately, I think in public spaces today, people don't take those concerns into account.
The founder of Muzak was inspired by Edward Bellamy. Bellamy was a 19th century author and visionary who dreamed of how we would use music in the year 2000. He also wasn’t far off from modern debit cards and online shopping, too. And oddly, those things are entwined more than ever in a post-Muzak world. More on that in a moment.
The Sound of Muzak—it was the easy-listening sound of mid-20th century America. During the lunar launch of Apollo 11, the astronauts listened to Muzak to calm themselves. President Kennedy even played Muzak on Air Force One and in the White House. Muzak was everywhere then. As a Muzak slogan claimed: “Muzak fills the deadly silences.”
Julian: If it's intelligent and appropriately done, music can be massively powerful, and it can have very, very strong positive effects on people. If, on the other hand, we treat it like a veneer, and mindlessly cover the world with it, I think that's a problem.
That’s Julian Treasure, founder of The Sound Agency, and an international expert on communication and sound.
Julian: It's all about making the world sound better. I care about that because I listen all the time. And I try not to spend too much of my time going around being grumpy, but there's a lot of bad sound around us, which is just the kind of by-product of stuff happening. You know, it's like the exhaust gas of living.
[City crowd with car horns SFX]
We've become an immensely ocular culture. Everything is designed for the eyes [tech SFX montage]. And the way it sounds is way down the list, if it exists at all.
That’s the impact of Muzak’s legacy on us today. Muzak gave us a lot more than just the genre of Easy Listening. Muzak introduced the idea that music was to occupy and influence public spaces.
Julian: There's a lot of frankly spurious research which purports to show that we all love music, everywhere. We don't. [music out] There are many people who find it deeply offensive or upsetting. And music in public places can be, and often is, extremely inappropriate. Music is quite a dense sound, so we identify certain aspects of sounds. There's the pitch, or tone [music building over examples], or the melodies or harmonies of music, if it is music. There's the pace, the tempo, or meter, or rhythm, or whatever else a sound might have. There's the density, which is how much attention is this sound calling for? Some sounds are very sparse, that you don't pay much attention to them, like the background noise of traffic [traffic SFX], anything that's constant or doesn't change much. On the other had bebop jazz [trumpet jazz horn SFX], or a ringing telephone [phone SFX], or a baby crying [baby crying SFX], are very dense sounds, indeed, and they call a lot of attention. Then you've got the variability of the sound [music example]. How much does it change? And the intensity of the sound—how loud is it? We need to pay attention to all these things.
[shopping mall SFX]
Then there may be brands that can express themselves very powerfully through a musical environment. In retail, people always ask me about Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch, and I think it's entirely appropriate what they do. They use fragrance, they use design, visual design, texture, touch, feel as well, and they use sound, particular musical programming to filter the people who go in there. I don't particularly enjoy that environment. I'm not supposed to. I'm not their target audience. My deal with them is, I don't go in. My children go in, choose the clothes, I dive in at the last minute [loud retail music environment SFX], pay and get out of there. That's how it's supposed to be. They don't want their store to be full of people of my age.
When stuff can be delivered directly to your door, retailers and restaurants today have to create a curated experience to survive. They have to create a space where discovery and connection are the powerful draws to make you leave your couch. And how a space sounds is a big part of that experience.
Julian: When you're designing an office or a restaurant or anything like that, you have to balance privacy against noise. And I don't want to hear what somebody across the office is saying on the phone, because, in the office I'm trying to concentrate. At dinner I want some privacy for my conversation, so if I can hear them they can hear me and that’s kind of intimidating and uncomfortable. [restaurant background noise] You need some background noise in a restaurant in order to mask other peoples' conversations. We can manipulate sound in amazing ways, now, with DSP, digital signal processing, to cloud or blur conversations from other tables, so that you can't understand what people are saying, by feeding back in, slightly out of phase, the signal that's coming from them, and just distorting it enough, whilst you can hear yourself absolutely clearly.
Unlike the easy listening of Muzak’s heyday, music in public spaces today is often faster and louder [music in]. Restaurant reviewers who measure noise in their reviews are reporting levels above 70 and even 80 decibels Those levels can cause hearing loss over time. Things like open kitchen floor plans, hard surfaces, and uptempo music all contribute to these noise levels.
Julian: There's a phenomenon called entrainment, where if you're surrounded by fast-paced sound, you tend to move faster, and do things faster. You can get more stressed, as well, by the way. Which, again, makes it surprising to us that so many stores play jolly pop music fast-paced. Because all they're doing is speeding people up. Retailers know that dwell time, the amount of time we stay in the store, is directly related to sales and how much we spend. In other words, if they speed us up, we spend less money. They lose. Yet, so many stores are doing exactly that.
[music speeds up]
If you're a fast food restaurant, I totally get it. The research shows that if we play fast-paced music and people are dining, they chew faster, they finish faster, they leave faster. Well, if you're a fine dining establishment, that's insane. If you're a burger bar and you want tables to turn over every 20 minutes or something, it makes all the sense in the world to do that to people.
So, right about now you might notice your heart rate has increased. Maybe you’re feeling a little stressed or jittery or anxious. We chose the last track of music for that specific reason. We’ve also been slowly speeding it up. So, memorise this feeling because it’s happening to you ALL THE TIME and you don’t even know it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sound in stores are thoughtfully designed to get you to buy stuff. While the sound in fast food restaurants are designed to get you in and out quickly. But there’s also another place where sound and music might be influencing you. ...and that’s at work.
Julian: I talk about the four effects of sound on human beings: physiological, the effect on our body. Psychological, the effect on our feelings. Cognitive, the effect on our ability to process, where that kind of office environment can cut our productivity down to a third of its potential. And finally, behavioral, the effect on our behavior, which is really significant
I'm not saying all silent. You know, going to see a football match in a silent stadium [silent football stadium SFX] would be a very spooky experience. On the other hand, we know that in a library, the rule is, shh, no talking, and we need to have more spaces like that, where people can actually work in peace.
There have been plenty of studies of noise in offices [office SFX] to show that noise creates a release of cortisol and noradrenaline--our fight or flight hormones, makes people more stressed. It increases blood pressure. That's clear, and that's been shown many, many times in studies. And, of course, chronic exposure to noise and it doesn't have to be that loud, we're talking about anything over about 65 decibels,chronic exposure to that kind of level of noise increases your risk of heart attack and stroke because of this increase in blood pressure and stress levels over a long period of time. That's clearly been indicated by a lot of research now, and unfortunately many people are working in environments where it is exactly that loud.
[phone ringing SFX, with abrupt stop]
Maybe Muzak was onto something when it created elevator music. Or, maybe it just contributed to how noisy our world is now. Either way, we know that Muzak’s intent was to create an appealing “soundscape” for the ears - kinda like what a beautiful “landscape” does for the eyes. If nothing else, it taught us that sound has an enormous physical and emotional impact on all of us… and if used consciously, you can even affect your mood pretty drastically. It can help you study, give you energy, wake you up, or just make you happy. AND, you can use it as much (or as little) as you want.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design and mix team that supports ad agencies, filmmakers, television networks and video game publishers. If you work in these fields, be sure to drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
This episode was written and produced by Carolyn McCulley. And me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger. Thanks to our guests – Joseph Lanza, the author of “Elevator Music,” and Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency.
While you’re online, be sure to visit 20k dot org. There you’ll find the transcripts to every single episode, as well as links to all of the music we’ve used and the guests we’ve had on the show.
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Thanks for listening.