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Muzak And Me: An Appreciation Of “Elevator Music”

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Elevator music, or Muzak.

It wasn’t there, but it was there, omnipresent, everywhere you went.

It seeped into a room or space often undetected, like an odorless vapor. It provided the soundtrack of our daily routines as we moved from the workplace to grocery stores, strip malls, restaurants, dentist offices…

…and yes, the occasional elevator.

If you were a child of a parent who listened to a “beautiful music” station, it accompanied you in the car ride home and followed you into the house as well. It was inescapable and emanated from every imaginable place in our lives.

There was a restaurant near my house called Uncle Andy’s Cow Palace that featured a giant cow out front.

After several visits, we noticed there was elevator music coming out of a speaker in the cow’s mouth. Of course there was. (My sister’s response was the obligatory “that is udderly ridiculous!”)

Meant to be a calming presence, I sometimes found something vaguely unsettling about Muzak.

  • Why was it just always there?
  • Where did it come from and who was behind it?

The musical artists were largely faceless and anonymous. Names were not often announced, and I would have recognized only a handful of them anyway from my parents’ record collection.

As I recall, there weren’t what you would call “deejays” on the radio station, just a soft and deep male voice from an amorphous existence that would occasionally appear and soothingly announce the call letters of the station (“FM 100: a beautiful place to be”)

And who in the later evening would give a brief “end of the day” monologue in a hushed, peaceful tone, accompanied by an almost meditative whistling version of “Mack the Knife”.

Getting back to the music: the melodies were played instrumentally by large orchestral groups or sung by standard issue smooth vocal ensembles.

These were often familiar – yet totally different than the original versions of the songs I knew, meant to tame the wild beast of more current rock and pop music to make it more soothing and suitable as background music.

The cornerstone of the operation were the giant string sections, employed to smooth out the rough edges of the original recording, oozing enough layers of syrup to cause a maple tree to gasp for its last breath.

But they could get dark as well. An entire section of low strings on the foreboding melody of “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt 2”, with intermittent glissando stabs could somehow manage to feel more menacing and subversive than the Pink Floyd original.

“We don’t need no pizzicato.”

Unbeknownst to me, there was an actual company called Muzak (which derived its name from the Kodak brand.)

They provided a large of amount of this music to restaurants, malls, and businesses, and which is where this style of music got its popular moniker.

The company also developed a “stimulus progression” program, which involved pumping in music to the workplace to increase productivity.

Eventually, to keep with the times, Muzak began including original recordings in their playlists, though always soft and muted in nature, never too obtrusive, in order to fit under the easy listening umbrella.

The “beautiful music” stations did this as well, and while still mostly instrumental, they would incorporate songs from classic old school singers like Perry Como and Johnny Mathis as well as the softer, middle of the road songs of the 70s. Bread’s “Aubrey” is one I remember hearing.

The origins and history of all of this remained a mystery to me at the time.

And if I had spent any time at all contemplating the idea that music could be used to manipulate one’s behavior, it would have only added to my complicated relationship with this gentle overlord.

Sure, I knew there was something off about a xylophone standing in for a Keith Richards guitar riff, an oboe (or was it an English horn) replacing a snarling Mick Jagger, and a perky brass section punching out the chorus of “Satisfaction”.

Even back then, elevator music was routinely mocked for obvious reasons ​that don’t need to be belabored.

It was never my choice to listen to any of it, but in perhaps a benevolent case of Stockholm Syndrome, I found myself giving in.

I remember one particular instrumental cover that I really liked when I was about 11, but I didn’t know the original. So I had no idea what it was. I asked practically anyone I knew if they knew the title, and I was given a few different answers.

It was decades later that I learned it was Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper.”

Out of the known musical groups that were featured, the lounge-Latin sounds of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 stood out to me.

At first, they seemed strange. What in the world was up with their take on “With a Little Help from My Friends”?

And we laughed when they crooned the words “Shobby Shooba”. What did that mean?

It was actually “Chove Chuva (Constant Rain)”, which I only learned in the streaming era.

I grew to genuinely like them, and they are firmly imprinted in my musical DNA. I still listen to them frequently.

As I grew older, my teenage sensibilities should have eventually turned me wholly against all of this. Though I did find it slightly amusing to hear a somewhat misguided attempt at an orchestral version of a familiar Police song playing overhead as I walked along the local strip mall, I never fully rejected any of it. At that point it would have been akin to rejecting trees or grass.

Though Muzak basically fell out of practice by the mid to late 80s (my theory at the time was that it was replaced by smooth jazz), did it ever really die?

I can safely say that it will always be a part of me, and I am guessing I am not alone.

I could delve further into this music, but if you are of a certain age and place, you just know. And if you are not familiar, the only real way to somewhat do it justice… is to hear it for yourself.

I recently compiled a playlist of over 60 songs. Listening to it not only transports me back to pretty much my entire childhood, but I almost find myself becoming my father. Like no other kind of music, it evokes a feeling that I can’t quite describe, and maybe it is appropriate not to try. How do you explain something so
ubiquitous? It just is.

I will leave you with that playlist. Listen at your own risk. And if you find yourself kind of digging it, no need for worry or alarm.

Just sit back and relax. Everything is going to be just fine.

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rollerboogie

Music is what brought me here, but I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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Phylum of Alexandria
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April 27, 2023 8:09 am

“I sometimes found something vaguely unsettling about Muzak.”

Well, if the musicians recording it really do lack faces as you say they do, that’s straight up horrifying to contemplate.

I think what you’re tapping into is similar to the sentiment that drove so much of David Lynch’s work, most notably in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. And probably something like the Pixar movie Inside-Out as well.

There’s an insidious nature to relentless, ubiquitous pleasantry. At some point, you get the feeling that some more authentic feeling is being hidden away, bottled up, or papered over. And that’s without even getting into the “work productivity science ” flim-flammery, which makes it even creepier.

But yeah, that’s not to say that pleasant music is necessarily bad. I recently talked about how I was a late-comer to Baroque music, and now I really appreciate how dang pleasant it can be. As for Muzak sounds, the groups Air, Stereolab, and various Shibuya-kei artists turned me onto the general aesthetics of lounge, though I still admittedly think of actual Muzak, particularly the cover songs, as a bit campy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😀

Great write-up, RB!

cappiethedog
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April 27, 2023 2:20 pm

Ooh, Inside-Out. You made me sad, Phylum. I miss Pixar’s ambition. It’s not their fault. Sequels make more money. Inside-Out, Up, and especially the genius Wall-E, didn’t condescend to children.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 8:18 am

YES! Good to have you rollerboogie.

The first person that I knew claimed to like ‘beautiful music’ was a 50 year old co-worker back in the 90s. I couldn’t believe it. I kind of liked it, because it was a game of “Name that Tune” in the grocery store…oh, listen…it’s an orchestrated version of the Police’s “King of Pain”! But I didn’t really like it.

But in a sure sign of getting old, I now find myself LOVING this easy listening stuff. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’ve always liked The Carpenters and bread, but now I can 100% enjoy being awash in completely cheesy orchestrated versions of songs. Part of it is nostalgia. If I’m listening to an orchestrated version of “My Cherie Amour”, suddenly I know I’m listening to something that would have been played in our local Marsh Grocery Store in the early 70s. If I play The Ray Charles Singers version of “My Old Flame” (recommended by irishbeartx), I am participating in something that a 55 year old may have played to wind down after work while reading the paper in 1963. There’s something comforting and traditional about it all.

Now pardon me, there’s some birds I’m going to watch at the bird feeder while I eat my bowl of All-Bran cereal.

dutchg8r
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April 27, 2023 3:35 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Ha! I didn’t read anyone else replies before I posted, funny how we both mentioned Muzak was Name That Tune time for us….

What birds you have at your feeder?! I’ve been distracted all day by an American Ninja Squirrel that has ab muscles and leg muscles of vibranium apparently trying every which way he can to access the sunflower seeds in my feeder. This bugger is amazing, he’s hanging upside down FROM ONE FOOT and swinging himself over to wrap around the feeder and bring it closer to him. Work is an afterthought when I have that kind of entertainment out my window.

#I’mOld

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 8:19 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

Oh, sparrows, cardinals, house and gold finches, mourning doves. Nothing too exotic.
I did see a pileated woodpecker down the street the other day.

Last edited 11 months ago by LinkCrawford
LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 9:11 am

Oh, by the way, I just rebuilt your same playlist over on my apple music account. I was able to find all but 4 of your songs. I already had about 15% in my library 🙂

Pauly Steyreen
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April 27, 2023 10:00 am

I kind of feel like pure Muzak, which musically is as edgeless and formless as vapor, is a bit of a different animal than “beautiful” music, which seems to be a synonym of what I ways heard was called “easy listening.” I don’t think Muzak was available on any radio station, it was a product that was purchased and piped in by commercial enterprises to weaken our defenses, to remind is that we really are sheep, so we should just accept defeat (buy more, work harder, don’t ask questions).

So yes it is insidious, and the flim-flammery (love that word Phylum) is no more fake than standard advertising. It is a subtle psychological cue to affect behavior. If it didn’t work, then why would companies toss billions to the ad industry? Muzak may not have been quite as effective as a Wendy’s commercial, but it was not a pointless extravagance; it was an investment. It was a calculated effort to change behavior.

Now easy listening reminds me of a comment I wrote back at the mothership when Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” reached Number One. Someone asked, who were the people who propelled this boring ass song to the top? My answer: music likers. People who LOVE music would for the most part not feel compelled by Christopher Cross’ drivel, but there are many more music likers in this world than music lovers — people who just let the music wash over them and don’t think much about it. My parents were like that. They didn’t care much about music, so they were easy marks for easy listening or other crowd-pleaser egde-free slop. They loved Christopher Cross and the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and that vaguely pleasant sound. The orchestral covers of pop songs kind of falls into this category… music to exist and be blandly there, as unobtrusive as possible, but maybe tickling a hint of familiarity. Something music likers won’t turn off.

It’s not my bag, but it’s not as nefarious as Muzak.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 10:18 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Agreed. I think Muzak at least originally produced/recorded their own music. So you would never hear a Matovani song on true Muzak, but you would hear orchestrated covers of songs by Muzak’s own orchestra. I think. And that may have changed over time.

I actually remember that comment about music likers. I totally see what you’re getting at, but in the end, you can’t account for taste. I mean, how many people like a song such as “Louie Louie”? But it takes only the most rudimentary understanding of music to produce it and appreciate it. Easy listening is fully orchestrated and some superior level music arranging/performing skills went into every recording.

This brings up a question that I’ve thought about. Does listening to a playlist of a genre without wanting to skip songs mean that I like that genre best? Part of easy listening’s appeal to me is that I can listen without feeling the need to ever skip songs. I totally love classic rock, but if I listen to a playlist of it, I guarantee that I’ll want to skip 10-20% of the songs. Does that mean I like easy-listening best? Or is it just a genre that lends itself to low-level listening effort and thus requires less skipping?

Pauly Steyreen
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April 27, 2023 10:32 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Link, I think a genre being unskippable isn’t the best metric to determine your favorite. It’s a metric for not offending you, and if that’s your primary goal, to not be offended, then maybe that makes it your favorite.

I’m suspicious of a “favorite genre” concept, but I think if I were trying to quantify that, it would be based on which songs you’re most passionate about. Which songs really bring a fire into your belly, motivate you to dance or lip sync, or stir your emotions? That’s probably how I would measure a best genre.

(For the record I don’t think I have one. I love a few songs and can’t stand many songs from every genre.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Pauly Steyreen
LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 10:58 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

You’re probably right. And ‘favorite genre’ is a difficult idea to support, I agree.

I have a playlist of my 5 star songs on Apple Music with 2500 songs. Practically the only reason I ever skip anything on it is if 1) I’ve heard the song too often recently or 2) it’s too far removed from the genre that I’m in the mood to hear at the time. But usually I just go with the eclectic flow and love it.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 27, 2023 10:33 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I don’t doubt that certain music can have effects on productivity. Railroad chants, sea chanteys, fishing songs, and spirituals all reflect that synergy to some extent. And punk rock makes for great spreadsheet music, at least to break me out of the monotony of it all.

What I was thinking as flim-flam was the chart included, which shows some monotonic increase of “stimulus value” across progressive tracks, which would apparently lead to an increase in productivity.

If anything, Muzak makes people more productive by reminding people that they need to be productive. Kind of like how cartoon drawings of an eye on a chalkboard make people less likely to cheat on tests–it’s a subtle but omnipresent reminder of an expectation being set from on high. Beyond that, the “stimulus value” of a given Muzak track is about as meaningful as the beautiful music that comes from a long night of eating beans. It’s hot air from one corporation to another.

mt58
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April 27, 2023 7:42 pm

“It’s hot air from one corporation to another.” Well stated. That couldn’t be any more accurate. It feels and actually self-indentifies as a scam.

As others have opined, Muzak gave “beautiful music” a bad rap. I would equate the latter to fast food, but even BK satiates on occasion.

I remember my first office job, working over the summer during the college years. There was a rotary Muzak knob on the wall. I think I remember that it went from 1 to 6, with six being the highest volume. It only took me two days to get up the courage to start fiddling with it, and get it to play as quietly as possible. Kind of like when people mess with the office thermostat.

As we get older, I think we become more tolerant. But at the time it was torture, and made the day crawl.

Virgindog
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April 27, 2023 10:42 am

You’ve saved me from writing a Theoretically Speaking about Muzak!  🙂 

I did write about easy listening but Muzak is its own thing. While easy listening was mostly meant for home listening on expensive audio gear, Muzak made music for public spaces. Easy listening could be background music, but Muzak was background music. They’re two different things.

Nicely done, rollerboogie! Keep ’em coming.

JJ Live At Leeds
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April 27, 2023 12:52 pm

I’m not sure if things work differently over here. I’m aware of muzak but never heard the term ‘beautiful music’ before. Or maybe I’m just too young for it. It does feel like it’s a legacy of the 70s, something that crops up on awful sitcoms dragged from the depths of history. Or in lazy attempts to evoke the past. There’s plenty of stores, malls and the like that have their own radio stations pumping out a constant stream of noise but generally it’s mainstream instantly recognisable classic pop, nothing too out there to scare away the shoppers.

I don’t recall anywhere playing the sort of tunes on your playlist though I’m sure it got some exposure.

Been having a listen to the playlist. It did not help my productivity. Strawberry Fields starts off so slowly its soporific. Whereas Another Brick In The Wall brought me back to life in dramatic manner, you’re right, there is something sinister about it. Those stabs may owe something to Bernard Herrmann.

Thanks for shedding light on this for me. I can’t say I’m inclined to seek out more but always good to expand my knowledge. Thanks rollerboogie!

cappiethedog
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April 27, 2023 2:40 pm
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Muzak is the first music you hear in Alan Parker’s adaptation of Pink Floyd: The Wall. Maybe that was muzak’s last gasp.

cappiethedog
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April 27, 2023 2:35 pm

rollerboogie, I’m going to do a Les and Larry Elgart deep-dive. My favorite Beatles and Beatles-adjacent covers are the ones that make you forget you’re listening to the Beatles. I like Les and Larry Elgart’s “Instant Karma” a lot.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2023 8:35 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

I’ve had this 1960 Les Elgart album “The Band with THAT Sound” for a couple years, and I really dig it. Here’s a link to the youtube playlist of the album tracks.

https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPMKanfpt00NU8L3L-dtVgzjbEQqxRVja

cappiethedog
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April 29, 2023 1:04 am
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You know, after listening to so much indie rock, “so much indie rock” for so many years, stuff like Les Elgart, or really, anything non-rock(which includes disco and J-pop), music out of my time, is my alternative music. It’s nice having curators on the mothership.

I am not looking forward to AI-generated music. That just flat-out depresses me.

dutchg8r
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April 27, 2023 3:24 pm

Master Playlister RB in the hy-ouse! Welcome to the party rollerboogie. 😃

This immediately had me reflecting on the times BabyDutch would play ‘Name That Tune’ anywhere she went that had the dulcet tones of Muzak playing overhead. We’re talking 6, 7 YO age range, so I didn’t have the most robust winning percentage, but you better believe I was doing internal celebrations when I could go ‘oh, OH! I know this one!!!!’

cstolliver
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April 27, 2023 5:26 pm

Nice job, rollerboogie, on this debut! So glad to have you with us!

Some interesting insights in the comments here about Muzak vs. “beautiful music” vs. MOR. I do know that I almost never here any of it anywhere anymore. My dentist, for example, is just a few years younger than I am and plays the adult contemporary station or its Spotify or Pandora equivalent. No Muzak for him.

I remember how shocking it was when WCFL went from Top 40 to “beautiful music” in early ’76. Didn’t last too long — by the end of the ’70s it was more of a conventional adult contemporary station. These days, I don’t think it exists (at least not with those call letters and certainly not as an AM music station).

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April 30, 2023 9:15 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

Do “beautiful music” stations still exist anymore… I assume the bulk of their target audience passed out of the desired advertising demographic (or just passed away). Our local station of the sort (WDUV) transitioned away from true “easy listening” around the turn of the millennium but was not so long ago still editing the guitar solo out of ONJ’s “Magic” (#JusticeFor) and that was probably the hardest song they would play; now they include tunes such as “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off”, but have yet to change their soporifically intoned “Soft, Relaxing Favorites” liners.

I gotta say I’m unironically digging rollerboogie’s playlist though.

cstolliver
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April 27, 2023 7:25 pm

Forgot to add: I snorted at “We don’t need no pizzicato.” Nice job, mt!

mt58
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April 27, 2023 7:49 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

In 1973, 15 year old me would have never imagined that 50 years later, it would be my civic duty to tweak Roger Waters.

Yet here we are…

dutchg8r
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April 27, 2023 9:13 pm
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“How can you have any arpeggio if you don’t know yor chords? Come back here, laddie…”

mt58
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April 27, 2023 7:44 pm

Congratulations, rollerboogie, on a terrifically fun Debut Article! We’re looking forward to more!

PeiNews
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April 27, 2023 8:02 pm

I don’t think it was Muzak per se, but on the topic of softer covers of popular songs… I was in a hotel once and they were playing some sort of violin playlist, and one of the songs sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. And then all of a sudden, it hit me…
“Oh my god, it’s ‘Sk8er Boi’!”

Pauly Steyreen
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April 28, 2023 12:10 am
Reply to  PeiNews

Lol!!! I’d Ikea to hear the Muzak version of “Girlfriend”…

…come to think of it, I retract that statement. Never mind.

blu_cheez
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April 28, 2023 8:20 pm

I’m just realizing that mash-ups do exactly what Muzak does – produces that “isn’t that fun” chuckle while your expectations are subverted.

Also: without Muzak, I’m not sure we get “Music For Airports”, so thanks for that.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 1, 2023 8:03 am
Reply to  blu_cheez

Eno did cite Muzak as something he was reacting against with his ambient music. Though, for a more direct influence he was listening to the grandaddy of them all, Erik Satie.

Edith G
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May 1, 2023 1:08 am

Belated welcome ! Nice to have you over here.

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