All That Is Solid 06: Ubiquity Muzak for the Aficionado

All That Is Solid is an attempt to examine the relationships between popular music and global capitalism. Click here to access the archive.

One of the essential features of recorded music since its inception has been portability, and revolutions in recording formats over the last 50 years have largely sought to expand and develop this feature, oftentimes at the expense of others (for example, fidelity). With each increase in portability -- a trajectory that I believe has its terminus in personalized, networked, and incorporeal services like Pandora -- we get ever closer to what may seem an ideal state of being for some: Perfect Sound Forever. That is to say, it is almost already possible to listen to music that you like at all times. The largest impact of the MP3 player on the way we listen to music may be the opportunity it affords us to be able to hear any song we like at any possible time, during any possible activity. You may encounter a work environment where you can't listen to music, but aside from that it's possible to have something playing in your headphones and speakers all day without repetition. Furthermore, we don't have to rely on commercial airwaves, so we can ensure that we rarely have to hear music we don't like.

But as everyone knows from lovers' quarrels, there's a big difference between hearing and listening. I wonder if we sacrifice a little bit of our ability to relish, contemplate, and absorb the music we love by hearing it all the time, especially as the amount of time we spend in silence (or with music we dislike) decreases. This relates to a larger concern about what we want art to do for us -- do we primarily seek enjoyable, pleasant experiences or arresting, disruptive ones? If we are listening to music all the time, it becomes onerous to actually listen intently to all of it, to fully experience a state of aesthetic arrest (to borrow a term from James Joyce). When music is just another ingredient of the atmostphere, it loses some of its power to upset, challenge, or confront us. If we listen to music just to experience a series of sounds we like, and if we don't give ourselves the opportunity to be disrupted or "arrested" through listening, is music no more important to us than throw pillows, mood lighting, and incense?

I don't want to imply for a moment that it is always better to seek troubling, disturbing experiences over more passive, enjoyable ones. After all, while Beethoven once quipped that he didn't attend the orchestra in order to enjoy himself, Mozart was very clear about wanting his music to always be pleasing to the ear. Music is obviously a lot of things to a lot of people: a sanctuary, an escape, an accompaniment to celebration, an invitation to dance and socialize, an arena in which to encounter and do battle with elemental fears and the vagaries of human nature, etc. I don't think it would be desirable to experience music in only one of these ways, and I don't insist that aesthetic arrest is the best possible way to experience music. I just never want the ubiquity of music in our lives to preclude that kind of engagement, and to that end I fear that if we are being constantly exposed to music, we lose some of our ability to really let a song grab us by the collar, make us stop what we're doing, and listen. The more music can effectively be a soundtrack to our lives, the more it resembles muzak.

Many people don't realize that Muzak is actually the name of a company, and the history of Muzak is revealing. Essentially, factory managers in the 1940s and 1950s began recording data on work productivity during different parts of the day and under differing physical circumstances (this also led to the Ergonomics movement) and found that (surprise!) people get tired in the early afternoon. This effect could be counteracted by playing music that accelerated in tempo as the day went on. Of course, this music couldn't be too distracting or eruptive, as that would also disrupt productivity, so Muzak identified a few factors that make music more unobtrusive and easier to ignore. First, the songs should be familiar -- people pay more attention to things they've never heard before. Second, the songs should contain no vocals, because people tend to focus on the words of songs that have vocals. Third, the instrumental arrangements should never feature too much percussion, too many piercing sounds, and generally feature melodic instruments in the tenor-alto range (saxophone, "smooth jazz" guitar). Finally, the tempo and dynamics should fall strictly within a certain range (again, accellerating slightly throughout the day) because extremes on either end command attention. The template for "elevator music" was set, and Muzak produced its own recordings of pop hits to meet those now-familiar standards.

But by the time the 1980s came around, Muzak started pursuing a different angle: "audio architecture." They began to design programming specifically for the purpose of defining or enhancing an established brand, using commercial recordings to attract targeted demographics to their retail environments -- having worked in an Apple store a little long while ago, I am intimately familiar with the "brand" of music that makes people want to buy iPods, for example (Black Eyed Peas, Beck, Gorillaz, Foo Fighters, Feist, etc). Public spaces in our epoch, then, use our taste preferences against us: our favorite recordings make us want to spend more time in a place that's playing them, and put us more at ease in order to encourage us to make purchases. Then, just two months ago, Muzak declared bankruptcy. My theory is we don't need Muzak's services anymore because we're doing it to ourselves ("...and that's what really hurts").

Personally, I have found a need to reclaim silence. These days, I only put on a record when I want to hear a specific record, when I want to have an experience with it, and when I don't have anything else important to do simultaneously (well, it can be delightful to cook to Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady). I have to resist listening to music when I'm not prepared to stop doing everything else. This may just be a state that I'm in, but I need to stave off the boredom that comes from overindulgence. I don't want my life to have a soundtrack anymore. I need to hear music I dislike to restore my favorites to their revered status, and I need to hear silence so that music commands my attention by contrast. More importantly, I don't want to wake up to discover that Urban Outfitters feels like home because they pipe some Yo La Tengo through the speakers. The world may be going the way of Mozart, but some of us just need to suffer a little more in order to feel all right.

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