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The revelation came while hearing a background music version of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” at a Mr. Steak restaurant in Colorado

I just read “Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Musak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong,” written by Joseph Lanza and published in 1994, around the same time as V. Vale’s and Andrea Juno’s cult classic book, “Incredibly Strange Music.”

Lanza’s book was witty, thought-provoking, and informative, and I liked it a lot. It reminds of the work of James Twitchell.

There was just one thing that bothered me about the Elevator Music book . . . I’ll get to that at the end of this post. But first I want to share some quotes, as when I was reading the book I kept marking passages:

During the 1920s both President Hoover and the five chief executives of the largest and most growth-oriented corporations at the time, General Motors, Singer Sewing Machine Company, Dupont, General Electric and Goodyear, were all past classmates at M.I.T.

Interesting. I had no idea. [Apparently I had no idea because it’s not true! See comments below. — AG]

One-third of America’s 1924 furniture budget was spent on radio receivers.

Wow! Think of all the couches never reupholstered.

By trial and error, radio musicians and engineers determined that the sound of overlapping strings, preferably played at high pitch, counteracted much of the static and buzzing that marred the early broadcasts.

I love these unexpected connections between artistic choices and technology.

There has been considerable celebration of radio’s ability to unite people from great distances, but what about the equally significant time-space transformation involving the radio, the listener, and the household chores (not to mention mood music’s longtime companion, the icebox)?

Good point.

[In the 1940s], the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia released a study linking background music to a reduction in on-the-job accidents.

Hey—my dad worked at the Frankford Arsenal in the 1940s!

This information was augmented by even more tantalizing news that farmers in McKeesport had reported that their cows gave more milk to the “Blue Danube Waltz.”

Someone get PNAS on the line!

The precipitating event [of some controversy] was Muzak’s effort to transmit a program called “Transit Radio,” consisting of local radio programs and announcements (including commercials) from a Washington, D.C., radio station (WWDC-FM), into the District’s public buses and trains.

“This is Robin Quivers with street talk on DC-101.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson owned Muzak franchises in Austin during his early senatorial days.

Bernard Shaw would’ve absolutely hated this.

To this day, people who recoil at background music in a restaurant or office are more tolerant when similar sounding melodies show up in the movies or on TV.

I’ll get back to that point.

While volunteering to conduct serviceman ensembles in war theaters from Germany to Burma, [musical arranger Andre Kostelanetz] had introduced a mechanical gadget that let musicians know themselves. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology adapted his machine to their sonar system for locating submarines.

Shades of Hedy Lamarr!

The more Muzak distanced itself from “art,” the closer it came to being a distinct art form.

This is the familiar alliance of the highbrow and lowbrow against the middlebrow, which we can always flip around by labeling both high and low brows as being motivated by status anxiety.

Besides paying attention to tempo and volume, 3M’s system takes into account such problems as how well the sound bounces off tables. One 3M Sound Products dealer remembers an embarrassing incident at a restaurant chain outlet in which the company installed speakers designed for a particular floor plan. When the restaurant subsequently moved its counter, one of the speakers ended up transmitting music directly over the cash registers so that the microphone for announcing orders picked up nothing but music, and the business transactions were chaotic.

Great story!

The advent of FM mood-waves is due largely to the efforts of Jim Schulke, the “Godfather of ‘Beautiful Music’ Radio.” Schulke, a lean and somewhat reclusive man, was the kind of analytical genius who could dissect a ratings book as if it were a lab animal.

The “lean and somewhat reclusive” bit is important, because otherwise I’d have an image in my mind of a big guy, someone who looks like like Bill James. I don’t know why, but that’s what popped up at first.

Schulke remembers how good he became at ad-libbing a pitch for promotional clients: “I would experiment by switching on a Xerox machine during business consultations. After surreptitiously turning it off, I noticed that the voice levels dropped and everyone seemed so much more relaxed. I’d then tell them that this is exactly what my music does. Turning on my stations was like turning off the machines.

That’s a great classroom-style demonstration, but . . . it’s not ad-libbing. It’s the opposite!

[Quoting an old-time music producer:] “While supervising the 1973 London sessions with Leroy, I heard some fantastic instrumental string music on the BBC. So I called them and discovered they had a number of string orchestras on staff. They used material on the air twice and then erased it so they could continue to give work to these musicians.”

Interesting.

The advent of Beautiful Music [around 1970] coincided with a historically sensitive period in America’s demographics: a time when the generation gap was much more apparent than it is today.

“Today” was 1994. Since then, the generation gap has returned. Interesting to think there was a time it had mostly gone away.

From its beginnings, new-age music was doomed to controversy and censure from a musical establishment still wedged into nineteenth-century prejudices that equated good music with direct listening.

Well put. I’m not a fan of new-age music, but I do mostly listen to music as background, when I’m in the kitchen or riding my bike or whatever, and it’s indeed much different—not necessarily worse!—than direct listening.

Space music can then be best regarded as an outgrowth of easy-listening that is even further removed from the musical foreground. Beautiful Music supplies ghost tunes of originals, whereas space music distills the ghost tune’s mood, its sound, and a smidgen of its style and reprocesses it into an “original” composition once again, this time unanchored to any distinct emotional historical context. It avoids nostalgia mainly because its uncertainties force us to look back and ahead simultaneously.

When it’s music I like, I like to hear the originals or creative cover versions. But if it’s not gonna sound special, I might prefer a version that avoids familiar melodies. I’m not a big jazz listener, but I’dd rather hear soft jazz in the background than soft jazzy arrangements of Christmas carols or Beatles songs. The sound is the same but I’m not annoyed and distracted by the overly familiar tunes.

Todd Rutt, an “underground” filmmaker, claims to have had a revelatory moment while hearing a background music version of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” at a Mr. Steak restaurant in Colorado.

What can I say? That’s just a great sentence. I’d like to write a few thousand sentences of this quality during my career.

In recent years, the term “background music” has begun to come across as either a misnomer or a redundancy, since all music is taking a background role.

Yup.

Given its universal disrepute and the fact that most musicians (who cannot agree on much) at least seem to concur in opposing it, elevator music is probably the only category that grows stronger as its definition gets more nebulous. It is a melodic tar baby that embraces many a contemptuous cuff from reluctant recording artists.

“Melodic tar baby” . . . that’s good!

Demographics in the future will be defined less and less by sex, age, politics, or even income, and more and more by one’s taste for exotic locales or nostalgic situations absorbed from childhood television exposure.

I don’t think so. I think that more true of the baby boom and X generations, not so much for later cohorts shaped by the VCR and then the internet. “Childhood television exposure” is a murkier thing now than it was in the days of Deputy Dawg and Gilligan’s Island reruns.

Silence is just a euphemism for all the clatter that dominates our hearing when the background music is turned off. We only really experience silence when listening over modern fiber-optic phone lines that are so dead-quiet that we should welcome Muzak—if just as a reminder that we haven’t been disconnected.

Lanza should really cite John Cage here.

What bothered me

So, yeah, I enjoyed this book, or else I wouldn’t have spent a few hours reading it and another couple of hours preparing this post. I heartily recommend the book. I learned a lot. You might learn a lot from this book and enjoy it too!

But there’s one thing that bothered me, something missing from Lanza’s book, and that is that lots of people find Muzak really annoying. Indeed, the annoyingness of elevator music is something of a cultural consensus. Lanza points to various studies finding that people actually liked Muzak or preferred it to the alternative (rock, classical, jazz, country music, whatever), and I don’t know what to think about that evidence, but dislike of Muzak is a real thing. I actually happened to be waiting in the dentist’s office when finishing the Elevator Music book, and they were playing Muzak or some similar thing. That day we were getting trilling versions of hackneyed Christmas songs, and I found it annoying and distracting. As I wrote above, I’d much prefer some jazz or old movie theme music, and I don’t even like jazz! I’d rather innocuous background music than intrusive background music, and I found that Muzak intrusive.

And it’s just me. Lots of people dislike Muzak. As the saying goes, it’s a cliche because it’s true. And I would not buy the claim that everyone actually secretly likes it but just refuses to admit it. People are fine admitting their guilty pleasures—bacon, anyone??—and I’m sure that Muzak is somebody’s guilty pleasure, but I think lots and lots of people actively dislike it, for reals.

I’m not saying that Lanza has to dislike elevator music—he wrote a whole book about it, of course he’s a fan, and that’s cool. I’m not too proud to enjoy some light music too. I just think that if he’s gonna write this book about Muzak and related arrangements, he should more directly come to terms with the fact that so many people can’t stand the stuff. Really wrestle with the unpopularity of Muzak and not just glibly dismiss it.

27 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    Could it actually have been the hymn “In the Garden of Eden” by I. Ron Butterfly?

  2. Dmitri says:

    I am curious about the almost deliberate thoughtlessness that seems to characterize so much Muzak. Some psychologist at some point must have decided this was important to the enterprise, probably by p-hacking some tiny little sample of poor-quality observational data (see how I got us on topic?).

    It’s left us with a ton of cheesy, off-the-shelf synth timbres, and the often surreal reuse of of familiar source music. The other day I was on hold listening to a piece based on Petzold’s “Minuet in G” (formerly thought to be by Bach, a beautiful tune played by beginning piano students), reworked from 3/4 to 4/8, its first 8 bars swelling and deflating in an orgy of Romantic cliches. I thought, only someone who truly hates music would even think to do this.

    There’s so much simple, beautiful, ambient music out there that works fine as background. Someone could probably make money by starting a company to produce a good-sounding, not deliberately terrible, analogue of Muzak.

  3. jim says:

    “Lots of people dislike Muzak.”

    Yes, in short encounters, like sitting in the dentist’s office. You’re there for a short time. You walk in and the jazz version of “Elanor Rigby” is on, the background sound is new and bothersome. But to people who are in that environment all day it’s pleasant. I had the same reaction at the dentist a while back and asked the assistant about it and she said she liked it.

    • Andrew says:

      Jim:

      Lanza makes this point in his book: elevator music isn’t most people’s first choice, but it’s acceptable to most people, more so than any particular format such as rock, classical, jazz, R&B, etc. I’m not disagreeing with that point (although, like Dmitri in the comment above, I’d like to think that there could be an elevator music format that’s less annoying, perhaps by avoiding all the obvious Christmas carols, Beatles songs, and classical tunes and instead covering more obscure material or just noodling around more; but who knows, maybe that just wouldn’t be popular enuf). Rather, my point is that Lanza in his book never seriously engages with the fact that a lot of people find certain kinds of elevator music very annoying. Elevator music could still be a net plus, a good business decision that satisfies most customers, but in a book on the topic I think it would be good to think a bit more about why so many people absolutely can’t stand it.

  4. John Richters says:

    Andrew:

    I haven’t read Lanza’s book. As someone who worked for a Muzak franchise in the 1970s before my life took a bad turn into science, I’m surprised to learn that he managed not to address your issue head on, and think you’ll find this “Stuff You Should Know” podcast of interest. If you can tolerate the meandering conversational style (this in no RadioLab), their take on the historical arc of Muzak will repay your attention on this issue in a far better coin than Lanza’s book managed to mint.

    Muzak: Easy Listening Goodness: Muzak got a bad reputation as bland garbage music. We aim to set the record straight.
    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/stuff-you-should-know/id278981407?i=1000516330584

  5. Garnett says:

    “One-third of America’s 1924 furniture budget was spent on radio receivers.”

    Prior to 1924, furniture was built to last forever with (relatively) high quality materials and craftsmanship. Given the novelty of the radio at that time, I’m a bit surprised that the fraction spent isn’t higher.

  6. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Your George Bernard Shaw link is for some reason dated to the 25th, when it should be https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2021/04/06/this-ones-for-all-the-veronica-geng-fans-out-there/

  7. Derek Lowe says:

    Oh, cheap furniture has long been with us, although there’s surely more of it in recent decades. See Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”, from 1922. The line “Take from the dresser of deal / Lacking the three glass knobs. . .” refers to a cheap piece of furniture made of “deal”, relatively thin softwood construction. And even in 1922, that piece has apparently been around long enough to be missing knobs. You can also find many references from the late 19th century to Victorian factory-made furniture, which was considered cheap and ill-made. That said, I’d be willing to bet that it looks pretty solid compared to the low end stuff of today – we’ve advanced cheap wood/cheap construction technology to new levels. No doubt many people in the 1920s tried to buy better, solid stuff (and thus bought less frequently), because the cheap stuff was so obviously cheap-looking. But it was around.

    • Andrew says:

      Derek:

      Let me use this comment as an opportunity to complain about puzzle-style poetry like that of Wallace Stevens. It’s got a jaunty motion to it, and “emperor of ice cream” sounds like a fun thing for kids, but, yeah, once you decode it, it’s actually about a funeral. I hate that sort of thing, a poem where I have to work my ass off just to figure out what’s going on. This seems to be a tradition in poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets, lots of Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot of course, they all have some great lines and great music, but the literal meaning is so hard to figure out, it’s like an acrostic or one of those English-style crossword puzzles where every word has a trick meaning. I find it really annoying. In college I came across some poetry by W. H. Auden and it was like the sun streaming in. He just said what he meant! A poem can be subtle without being a puzzle! I never looked back, and I’m still mad at my high school English teachers for pushing the whole poetry-as-puzzle thing, I guess it didn’t help that they made us read novels that were hard to follow too.

      • Alex C. says:

        Yeah, I agree completely. When I was in high school, the head of the English department was a huge fan of William Faulkner, so we had to read Faulkner’s books in every English class. Just horrible stuff. Absalom! Absalom! has a sentence that runs for 1,288 words. I wonder how many students were forever turned off to reading because they had to endure that stream-of-consciousness nonsense.

        • Derek Lowe says:

          I worked out the funeral part when I read the poem, although I didn’t know what a “dresser of deal” was at the time, so that one sounded odd. But it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I read that Stevens had traveled to Miami and Havana, in communities where lots of food was made and served at a wake, and that finally made sense of the muscular one, the roller of big cigars, and the juxtaposition of ice cream making and a dead body down the hall (!) But I will say that even without knowing that, the poem established a weird and unique mood and scene. I assume that’s what Stevens was trying to capture, and if so, I think he succeeded.

          Absalom, Absalom is not my favorite Faulkner – that would be As I Lay Dying, which is (mostly) straightforward, although a tour de voice of viewpoint and voice. There are some puzzles in it, though: a college English professor of mine pointed out that there are a couple of scenes and lines make a lot more sense if Darl and Dewey Dell have some sort of telepathic link. Which is not a theory I’d stake the mortgage on, but after he pointed it out I could see what he meant. There are a lot of disagreements about what happens in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”, too, and I’m not sure which camp I’m in, but the uncertainty doesn’t dampen my liking for the book. On my first read through it, the bits and clues that I caught then actually added to the exciting effect of there being even more going on than I knew.

          OK, enough off topic stuff. I’ve thought for years that I need to start a separate blog other than “In the Pipeline” for stuff like this!

          And there are minor puzzles – I was on maybe my third re-read of Martin Amis’s “Money” when the name of the lead male actor in the book suddenly hit me. I had moved to New Jersey by then, and maybe that was what did it: “Lorne Guyland”, I thought, looking out the window and shaking my head. “Lorne Guy-land. . . ” I should have kept in mind that Amis had inherited/absorbed his father’s ear for accents and speech patterns. That one also has some more-going-on aspects to do with when Martin Amis himself enters the book as a character (which he says is exactly when he’s sure that his father threw the book across the room).

          But although I enjoy some uncertainty, there’s a limit. “Finnegans Wake” is of course the end result of obscurantism, a novel that only one person ever had any chance of knowing what was going on in it, but it can get annoying well before that point. And what I *really* can’t stand are authors/screenwriters who pile on mysteries just because they’re mysterious, and have no idea of what they mean, either. “Lost” is a recent TV example, but I didn’t see a minute of it, having fallen for part of the first season of “Twin Peaks” in the early 1990s before realizing that David Lynch had no idea whatsoever where things were going or what all those intricate clues and references could possibly mean. Other than they looked and sounded sort of cool.

          • Andrew says:

            Derek:

            I have to admit that I loved Pale Fire, and I’m also a Gene Wolfe fan, so it’s not like I’m opposed to literature-as-puzzle. My problem is that we were implicitly taught that poetry is almost all puzzle. I think it would’ve been better for us to get a mix, rather than to be given the impression that puzzle poetry is the peak of the form.

      • Phil says:

        I felt this too (about the novels) and then maybe ten years ago I reread Intruder In The Dust (Faulkner), which all of us complained about in high school…and WTF, it’s a great story, easy to follow, nothing tricky about it at all! And it’s the kind of thing I enjoyed reading, even then! I probably should have looked up Mrs. Peavey and apologized to her, I remember how upset she was when she gave us a pop quiz on the first half of the book and pretty much nobody had read any of it. Maybe it’s not too late, she might still be alive.

  8. Thanks for reminding me of this book that I read when it was first published. You pointed out one thing that I missed back then and reminded me of what I came away thinking at the time I read it.

    Let me start with the one I missed when when reading the book. President Hoover was never anyone’s classmate at MIT. He is/was famously a westerner, a graduate of Stanford University’s first class. (He’s class of 1895. The first class entered in 1891. So, if I’m wrong it’s because I can’t subtract.)

    The second is what I thought back in ’94: what’s with the emphasis on WPAT-FM easy listening? I know, that’s what people mean when they say Muzak. But by the mid-90s you’d see vans in Manhattan bearing the Muzak logo and the tag line: “Specializing in Psychological Uses of Sound” roaming the avenues.

    I remember getting curious and looking into it. By then Muzak the company had moved on to creating custom soundscapes for businesses. That paralleled a similar trend in advertising. Rather than create proprietary jingles (“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce”) or rewrite popular songs (“Me and my Arrow”), advertisers started licensing songs Baby Boomers, at first, grew up on.

    The story of how song selection can help differentiate a retailer or advertiser by creating and reinforcing a bond with the customers is one of the more fascinating business tales of recent vintage. It’s s real world demonstration of Yip Harburg’s great insight: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”

    If the thought the customer feels is “this product/store is for people just like me,” then Muzak Corp. has done its job.

    • Bob76 says:

      You beat me to it. Hoover only earned a bachelors degree—and that was from Stanford. Of course, he collected a about a hundred honorary degrees. He claimed to be Stanford’s first student—as he had lived in one of the dorms the summer before the first semester. He served for many decades on the Stanford board of trustees.

      He’s a fascinating guy who got a bad rap due to a number of factors. I believe that he was the only president who was a member of the National Academy of Science.

      Science Magazine had a nice memorial piece on Hoover written by Fredrick Terman. (8 January 1965 at p. 125). https://science.sciencemag.org/content/147/3654/125

      I would commend Termin’s memorial piece to Dan C—Terman had an MIT connection. I believe that he was Vannevar Bush’s first graduate student. Hoover’s brother was the Dean of Engineering at Stanford and he hired Terman after MIT.

      In a footnote to Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes wrote “10. Mr Hoover was the only man who emerged from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation. This complex personality, with his habitual air of weary Titan (or, as others might put it, of exhausted prize-fighter), his eyes steadily fixed on the true and essential facts of the European situation, imported into the councils of Paris, when he took part in them, precisely that atmosphere of reality, knowledge, magnanimity, and disinterestedness which, if they had been found in other quarters also, would have given us the Good Peace.”

      Bob76

    • John N-G says:

      About that Herbert Hoover thing, my first reaction was disbelief that: “…the largest and most growth-oriented corporations at the time [were] General Motors, Singer Sewing Machine Company, Dupont, General Electric and Goodyear.” Singer? Dupont? Goodyear? Really? So I Googled it.

      Company 1917 revenue rank 1929 revenue rank

      General Motors #19 #2 (large and growing rapidly…one out of five)
      Singer Sewing #27 #50 (a stitch lost in time)
      Dupont #9 #28 (negative growth)
      General Electric #13 #10 (at least it made the top ten)
      Goodyear #28 #22 (the rubber has hit the road)

      Tops, BTW: US Steel (1917); Standard Oil of New Jersey (1929)

      Original source: Forbes Magazine, Sept. 15, 1967

      Spooky coincidence alert: Found in a blog post written by a Gary Hoover!

  9. Dan C says:

    Herbert Hoover was never a student at MIT. MIT has other alumni to be ashamed of because of their tenure as chief executives, including the former governor or Puerto Rico and the current Prime Minister of Israel. (I’m an alum.) Don’t saddle us with Hoover, too.

  10. Ari says:

    As someone with some formal musical training, most relevantly in arranging and orchestration, I usually enjoy listening to elevator music, and will occasionally even put it on. It is a genre where the arranger gets to shine.

    It is a great energy contrast, for example, to hardcore rap or twelve-tone serialism.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      Honestly, that is fascinating.

      I’ve never really thought of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as having an arrangement before now.

    • David J. Littleboy says:

      Yes, I noticed the arranged aspect of Musak too the other day at the doctor’s office. I forget the tune, maybe a Bossa, but it was a bog-standard standard and the arrangement was seriously wild. The melody was switching between instruments every measure or so it seemed, flying around the group at an amazing velocity, giving the engineering/physics term “group velocity” a new (appropriate!) usage. But “energy contrast” to those things? If you notice what the arranger is doing, it’s just as high energy. That there’s serious intellectual content in Muzak was a surprise. It’s still friggin’ obnoxious. (I think that’s because it’s devoid of individual musicianship.)

      I played guitar in a big band for a while, a universe where everything’s arranged (including the solos), and since our clientelle was largely older folks, we were close to Muzak ourselves. So I was attuned to that.

      (FWIW, the youtuber Rick Beato covers the arrangement aspects of popular music in his vlogs, especially his “What Makes This Song Great” series. I still prefer small-group improvisational music, but I’ve learned a lot about what goes on in arrangers’ heads from him.)

  11. jim says:

    All his Muzak hating is amusing. I’m definitely not in love with Muzak but it’s no more obnoxious than Black Dog or Freebird or Whole Lotta Rosie for the 5 millionth time. Today nothing in music is more offensive than the Classic Classic Rock soundtrack, which has been droning on monotonously with barely a few dozen tunes for some 40 years now, with only a brief squirt of newness in the late 90s, barely enough to wet the windshield, let alone refresh the view. Yuk, I’ll take Muzak over that any day!

    • Phil says:

      I disagree with all of your examples — I find (almost) all of them preferable to Muzak — but I definitely agree with your point. There’s a lot of music I dislike more than Muzak.

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