Thank you for the muzac

This was written in 2007

Breakfast time, Heathrow, Terminal 4. I’m staring at some luke-warm bacon and two hard fried eggs, but the queasiness in my stomach is because a fat bloke is singing opera in Italian just a bit too loudly over the restaurant sound system. You know that irritating volume level. Just too loud to filter out, but just too quiet to listen to. The fat bloke stops. I breathe a sign of relief, but he’s replaced by a thrash band with wailing female vocalist. Thrash doesn’t go with breakfast. And what’s the point of quiet thrash? Then a woman starts screeching more opera in German. The couple at the next table stand up. “Don’t you want another coffee?” says the guy. “No way. I can’t take any more of this music,” she replies.

Monday morning. Virgin Records (RIP). I’m doing my Monday morning check for new releases. Virgin radio isn’t on for a change, but what is playing is Nirvana live. My tastes are wide, but it’s not Monday morning music. I glance round. Two other customers. Both fifty something. One is heading for the door. I decide to watch the customers. In the next few minutes four new ones arrive, all young mums with babies or toddlers. Two only take a step inside, screw up their faces and leave. The other two last less than a minute. None of them buy anything. Yes, Nirvana at nine-thirty is effectively clearing the store. A couple of weeks later, same Virgin, same time. The average age of the four customers would be seventy. Something pleasantly quiet gives way to the White Stripes thrashing away at a much higher volume. The store is empty within two minutes.

The term ‘muzac’ (aka piped music or elevator music) became perjorative during the sixties and seventies. You’d hear Satisfaction, perhaps adorned with tinkling xylophone, blending into Up, Up and Away with a little flute which merged into Dancing Queen with cowbells. Given tinny little speakers and low volume there was no place for thundering bass lines, and stuff in the higher registers cut through just enough to follow the melody.

Muzac Inc was founded in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, and by the 1950s was taking a scientific approach to the background music it supplied to stores, offices and factories. They researched the volume levels (low), re-recorded songs as bland instrumentals, evened out the tempo of assorted songs, and for the workplace developed the concept of ‘stimulus progression’. According to their website this was “a process of programming music at faster tempos to counteract the tendency of the human mind and body to slow down during the late morning and mid-afternoon. The slogan:

Muzak While You Work for Increased Efficiency

According to various studies conducted by Muzak, Stimulus Progression increased concentration, lowered blood pressure, and heightened productivity by gradually raising the intensity level of music in 15-minute cycles, with the relative level of each 15-minute cycle escalating during the late morning and mid-afternoon.” The same thought process was used to provide ambient music for browsing in stores, eating in restaurants or calming nervous elevator passengers.  They also paid songwriting royalties which were accurately based. Muzac was elevated (if you’ll excuse the pun) by Brian Eno with his series of ambient albums, such as Music for Airports, which were designed to be played at low volumes. Paul Simon pointed out that having muzac versions of his songs were a barometer of success, stating that he knows he’s got another big hit when he hears a blandified version of it at the supermarket. Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell on the other hand gave a blanket refusal for muzac versions of their songs.

But muzac has a longer history than that. Much 18th century chamber music was designed to be heard rather than listened to. Bach composed music designed to be background noise for 18th century cocktail parties. Erik Satie described some of his work as ‘furniture music.’ 1950s easy listening orchestral music fulfilled much the same function. I discovered a 1967 LP by Peter Knight and His Orchestra in “Mercury Super Stereo Sound” no less. In the year of its release, the first summer of love, it’s an easy listening version of Sergeant Pepper. An easy listening A Day in the Life is the sort of thing that gave muzac a bad name. John Lennon wrote in How Do You Sleep? his tirade against Paul McCartney:

The sound you make is Muzak to my ears.

New Age music took over part of the role of muzac. You can find it between the crystals and incense in a small rack in New Age shops. At its best, in the Windham Hill label releases, you got gentle melodic piano playing from the likes of George Winston, and Windham Hill refused all offers from muzac for rights. At its worst you got an hour of synthesizer doodling, usually with some ethnic add ons. Add a bit of chanting and drumming and you might have a Native American version by someone called Graham Running Bear from Crawley. Add a few random gongs, and you have the Tibetan version. Add a bit of sitar (hard to play) or tablas (easy) and you have the Indian version. It’s designed to be played in the background and while it’s confined to New Age shops in the UK, in Canada you can hear it in every mall and restaurant. Much of it gets called music for relaxation or meditation and ends up on free cover CDs with the Daily Mail, only available at W.H. Smith, of course.

Some of this stuff is more than doodling, and like muzac twenty years earlier has been designed to create specific effects on the listener. Certain tones, often in the bass register, are held to create deep relaxation. One series, Hemi-Synch uses a deep bass drone,  and for years I used one called Sleep Gently in The Rain to shut out cabin noise on long flights. It was effective in that even if you couldn’t sleep propped upright in economy, you felt relaxed and refreshed. Another series (I’ll avoid the name) was labelled as having “Revitalising tones” and left all listeners quivering slightly and unable to sleep. It was the aural equivalent of six double espressos. Noise cancelling headphones have replaced them with a more mundane way of shutting out engine drone on planes.

The 2007 version of muzac seemed to be unlimited Norah Jones albums. Only last week I heard the latest one played three times right through during a long restaurant meal. The third time I heard Thinking About You at very low volume it started to get right on my teeth, much as I like the small but perfectly formed songstress. I wanted to shout, ‘Either turn it up, or turn it off.’

So what has happened to ambient music or muzac recently? As every store gained its own relatively cheap hi-fi system, every shop assistant got to be a DJ and stick on whatever CDs they felt like hearing. Few of them are motivated to encourage browsing customers, and few of them have an idea of what constitutes suitable background music. If it cleared the store of customers, so much the better.

There have always been areas where music was chosen on the spot for situations. Whenever I hear Billy Fury records I’m transported to 1960s fairgrounds and can smell candy floss and onion rings. I thought the prediliction for listening to Billy Fury whilst screaming on a rollercoaster was a local Dorset thing, but when I moved to Hull, and then Norwich, the fairs still had When Will You Say I Love You? blaring from the roundabouts, the only place anyone has heard it since it left the chart in 1963. After twenty years gap, taking my kids to a fair, I was amazed to hear Billy Fury was still going strong.

Fashion boutiques have always prided themselves on being up to the minute with music. Years ago I first heard Patti Smith’s Because the Night between the brassieres and knickers in a boutique and bought it. A few years on, the Buddha Bar series was introduced to me while waiting aimlessly in a boutique. Some even have resident DJs.  But is giving every shop assistant choice a wise thing? Forget the Hi-Fidelity style second hand record store where the customer expects an eclectic and in-your-face selection.

Some music just isn’t right for browsing. Opera’s never, never right as background music.  Nor is Mahler. Punk and thrash don’t encourage people to stay whether they like the music or not. It’s not condusive to browsing in a shop or eating breakfast at 7 a.m. Over the last couple of weeks, stuff that brought an instant smile to my face in stores include Wouldn’t It Be Nice?, Brown-Eyed Girl, and It Keeps On Raining by Bitty McClean. They all encouraged me to stay.  Borders (RIP) and HMV, probably wisely, used to have a small selection of five or six new releases on mix and match replay, and they seem adept at choosing stuff that doesn’t jar.

What’s wrong with total silence? Do you want to be bombarded with wildy assorted background crap in every shop? There are good reasons for having something there. Music shuts out background noise, but more importantly it makes people feel more private as they go about their business. You can try this at a cinema before the film, or in a lecture hall before a talk. If it’s silent, people sit in silence and feel constrained to communicate in whispers. If some music is playing, they relax and chat to their neighbours. The existence of the music makes them feel that they’re not being overheard. But that’s the function of the music – to be heard peripherally, not to be listened to.

Way back in the early 80s I spoke to a friend who’d worked in record stores for ten years. It left him craving silence in the evening. Maybe the existence of music all day and everywhere is a barrier to enjoying the music we choose to listen to.