views updated


The seeds of the all-enveloping background sound of music in public places that evolved into Muzak were sown in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the 1950s, the concept had developed into a commercial reality that invaded the American way of life, its presence only increasing as the century wore on. The trademarked name "Muzak" has become generic, referring not only to that company's own proprietary mix of piped-in background music, but to any such music in public spaces and the workplace. It is sometimes called "wallpaper" or "elevator" music—a mild pejorative that distinguishes its contrived and synthetic quality from "real" music, listened to actively and intentionally—and signifies its role as ambient sound to be experienced subliminally.

The aesthetic concept of music as an environmental component rather than an artistic abstraction of sound important for its content was consciously advanced in the first decades of the 1900s by French composer Erik Satie in what he called musique d'ameublement (furniture music). Workplace music, however, goes much farther back to folk genres such as the songs sung by British textile handworkers and their seagoing counterparts, the chanty men. In the early factories of the Industrial Revolution, workers sang on the job for their own amusement and that of their co-workers, falling silent in the mid-1800s only when the noise of increasingly powerful industrial machinery drowned their voices. (Even then, some factories encouraged glee clubs and hired bands in an attempt to make the workplace less austere.)

Early in the twentieth century, however, the new science of industrial efficiency management was electrified by the discovery made at an indoor bicycle race held in 1911 at the old Madison Square Garden in New York. A brass band was part of the entertainment, and statisticians clocking the race discovered that cyclists' average speeds shot up by about ten percent during the band's sets. Five years later, a commercial laundry experimented with playing ragtime records; productivity increased dramatically when ironing was done in time to the music. In 1922, the Minneapolis post office tried playing records in its night sorting room and found that sorting errors fell.

By 1930, many American factories provided some sort of music, either live or phonograph, and the numbers of workplaces where music was supplied increased steadily. During World War II, one researcher reported recorded music in 76 out of 100 factories visited and more than half of management as stating that music increased production. Despite some uncertainty about fitting the rhythm of the music to the actual tasks (one wartime factory in Britain had to withdraw "Deep in the Heart of Texas" because workers stopped what they were doing to clap in time to it), factory music came to be favored both for its cheering effect on morale and for the relief it offered employees obliged to perform monotonous tasks.

Muzak was the invention of General George Owen Squier, who had invented both a high-speed telegraph and telephone-line multiplexing during his rise to the command of the United States Army Signal Corps. He took his inspiration from Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy's utopian novel that featured a "musical telephone" which would bring music programming—rousing in the morning, soothing in the evening—to every house in a then futuristically posited dawning of the twenty-first century. Squier entered an agreement with the North American Company, an Ohio utilities conglomerate, to produce a service called Wired Radio that would offer subscribers a choice of three program channels over telephone lines to homes or retail shops. Shortly before his death in 1934, Squier's efforts to come up with a catchier name for his company, resulted in the term Muzak, a blend of the word "music" with the final syllable from George Eastman's universally pronounceable synthetic trade name, Kodak.

In 1936 Muzak moved to Manhattan from its studios in Cleveland. In-house engineers recorded such popular artists as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and two members of Benny Goodman's original sextet, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, using the cutting-edge technology of 33 1/3 r.p.m. vinylite disks, forerunner of the long-playing records that would render 78 r.p.m. shellac platters obsolete in the decade following World War II.

Postwar consumer culture spawned suburban sprawl, including the supermarket and, later, the ubiquitous shopping malls, and recorded music contributed to the subnormal eye-blink rate of day-dreamy grocery shoppers (although it did not stop them, as sociologist Vance Packard noted, from a sharp increase in blinking and, presumably, anxiety as they approached the cash registers). Music in the office environment came more slowly, but by the late 1950s the Muzak corporation could boast that its programming was being heard by 50 million Americans daily. Sequencing was the key to Muzak's success: in response to psychological research showing that workdays started with high energy which fell off sharply after an hour or so until the approach to lunch, Muzak provided programming which offered catchier, cheerier rhythms at mid-morning and whose arrangements were laced with woodwinds and occasional brass (in contrast to the subtler and more subdued strings preferred, for example, by restaurants for their early evening trade).

Although worker response tended to be highly favorable to judiciously programmed environmental music, not everyone cared for it. When the Washington, D.C. transit system contracted Muzak to supply its vehicles in 1948, disgruntled riders brought a lawsuit. The hearing eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (as Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak), which ruled in 1951 that the Constitution did not guarantee a passenger on a federally regulated vehicle "a right to privacy substantially equal to the privacy to which he is entitled in his own home." Thus, the court implicitly affirmed the right to play wallpaper music willy-nilly as a form of First Amendment expression.

Since the late 1950s the recording industry has profitably offered mood-music recordings from artists such as Mantovani, with his sweeping strings, soothingly romantic or mystical, through arrangements of show tunes, to Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Meanwhile, Muzak and its two main competitors, Audio Environments, Inc. and 3M Sound Products, thrived through the end of the twentieth century on a formula of what a former Muzak music designer, Christopher Case, defined as "music artfully performed in a manner to uplift, not to intrude."

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Boston, Bedford Books, 1995.

Cardinell, Richmond L. Music in Industry: Principles of Programming. New York, ASCAP, 1944.

Husch, Jerri A. Music of the Workplace: A Study of Muzak Culture. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International, 1984.

Lanza, Joseph. Elevator Music. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. New York, Pocket Books, 1957.

Satie, Erik. Écrits. Paris, Éditions Champ Libre, 1977.

Sundstrom, Eric D., and Mary Graehl Sundstrom. Work Places: The Psychology of the Physical Environment in Offices and Factories. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

About this article


Updated About content Print Article Share Article