The science of background muzak

Working from a coffee shop, I’d play Van Halen's “Dreams” to get me going. Until now, I never knew that there was a science behind what I was doing.

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Back in the days when those working from home were able to do so in coffee shops, I’d listen to the same piece of music over and over to get me going. It was a song by Van Halen called “Dreams”; mid-period, post-David Lee Roth, used on the soundtrack to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. It is not a good song. The voice is high and constipated. There is a guitar solo at 2:54 that whinnies like a frightened horse. But I looped it and looped it, and it made me write. I have no idea how many of my bon mots came out to that song, but it was anything I produced between 2012 and 2019.

“Dreams” didn’t calm me down, or make me inspired: I didn't actually listen to it. It raised my heart rate, and its thoughtless thud acted like a pair of musical blinkers. As I entered the tunnel of rock the colourful folk of the Kentish Town Costa in north London would disappear. I never knew, until now, that there was a science behind what I was doing.

In the 1920s, the complex relationship between music and productivity was better understood than it is now – when George Owen Squier, who’d been chief signal officer of the United States Army Corps during the First World War, spent his later years inventing a service which piped music into businesses and homes across America, with a charge on their electric bills.

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By 1936, when commercial radio had won out in the domestic setting, Squier's creation, Muzak – the easy listening we all know and mock – was solely for civic use, played in offices across America as well as factories, airports and doctors’ surgeries. Lyndon Johnson, when he was a senator, owned a franchise of Muzak Ltd in Austin, Texas. Lyndon sold Muzak to the White House when Dwight D Eisenhower was in office, so it played in the background in the West Wing too.

The life, and death, of Muzak is explored in a radio documentary The Day The Muzak Died – a short and noisy programme whose producers made the odd decision not to name some of the experts until later in the show, so they sound as anonymous as the music that tinkles away behind them. Muzak was played in lifts – the setting that comes to mind for most of us – but there is so much more behind the airy strings, the cheeky French horns and the famous tunes picked out innocuously on the vibes, than relaxation.

Someone once said that music is art and muzak – it later became a generic term – is science. The original Muzak employed a technique called "stimulus progression" to achieve what I think of as the Van Halen effect. In the postwar, production-line Fifties, Muzak programmed their tunes in 15-minute blocks throughout an eight-hour working day. The average heart rate is 72 beats per minute – so their tracks would start slower than that, and by 14 minutes would be much faster, with lots of brass to get you really razzed up. Then there’d be a break, to avoid fatigue. And then it would all start again – with more intense, even brassier pieces programmed around the energy slumps of elevenses, or just after lunch. There is even a Muzak version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”.

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Though muzak couldn't compete with quality pop music in the 1960s, it has never quite gone away. Over time, the places that played it became more rare, but you didn’t really notice – perhaps because muzak was never meant to be listened to. I recall the strange copyright-free pop played in Little Chefs in the Eighties – over the sound of the kitchen you'd hear a version of “Last Christmas” that wasn't quite right, and you'd realise it was an inferior George Michael doppelganger.

Now, you hear muzak most commonly on the phone, when you’re stuck on a 25-minute call to Nationwide, or when you’re landing on certain planes – but much less in public spaces. In 1992, a slightly angry man called Nigel Rodgers founded a political advocacy group called Pipedown which succeeded in getting music removed from Gatwick Airport in the early Nineties and in M&S in 2016. Constant muzak, or “piped music”, could be a health hazard, he claimed, depressing the immune system, raising cortisol levels, increasing the risk of strokes – which, now that we know about stimulus progression, is not quite as insane as it sounds. He is quite annoyed on the radio show, even though he’s had enough success with his campaign to relax a bit by now: “Music should not be used as a psychological conditioner!” Rodgers says.

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But I was left wondering which was worse, really – employees being manipulated by music, or the modern office breeding workers slumped and silent, unable to concentrate with background noise, many of them clinging to some kind of personal ambiance with their headphones tuned to “medieval tavern” or “log fire” on Youtube. I personally would love to work in an office with muzak. Sometimes, I'll be tramping somewhere in a hurry and fractions of “The Grand Old Duke Of York”, or the William Tell Overture, will pop up in my wheezing breath, as music stimulates my unconscious to action.

As for the modern equivalent of lift music, Spotify is the muzak of the day. For many people, the way the service is used is not so different from that conceived by Squier 100 years ago – with artists lost on an endless playlist, torn from context and greatness, reduced to creating a mood or a vibe for a particular setting. Lazy Sunday Brunch, anyone?

"The Day The Muzak Died" is available now on BBC Sounds

Kate Mossman is a senior writer at the New Statesman

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