“We consider Music by Muzak a definite part of the modern office. It goes naturally with good lighting, soft colors and intelligent layout. After the installation of Muzak, our best estimates show that efficiency increased 5%.” –R.R. Harley, Assistant Treasurer, National Gypsum Co., Buffalo NY, in a 1965 Muzak brochure.
On September 20, 1853, Elisha Graves Otis sold the first of what he called his “hoist machines” – what we know today as elevators. His invention made the modern skyscraper possible, and also helped usher in what is often called “Elevator Music.”
The Music Division’s deep files contain a subject folder called “Industry and Music.” This well-worn accordion folder is full of bibliographies and other materials concerning the use of music in the workplace, be it the factory or the office. Among the more fascinating documents is a letter dated July 24, 1944 from Dr. Harold Burris-Meyer, Lt. Comdr., USNR, on Joint Chiefs of Staff letterhead. Burris-Meyer had written a frequently reprinted paper on “Music in Industry” for the American Society of Medical Engineers , as well as a volume on stage craft, and responded to an inquiry from the Music Division with a referral to a Mr. R. L. Cardinell of Muzak, Inc.
The first recordings under the name of Muzak were released in 1934, and the company has undergone a number of corporate and philosophical changes over the ensuing decades. In its current incarnation, Muzak supplies a range of music by original artists, and it is a far cry from your father’s elevator music. But there is considerable nostalgia for that by-gone era, as the popularity of what is called “Space Age Bachelor Pad” or “lounge” music attests, and one can’t help but wonder what the characters in the popular television series Mad Men hear in their office.
The Music Division’s collections contain materials related to a number of the men behind the Muzak, including Morton Gould and Lawrence Welk. The men who plied their trade for your background pleasure also appear in the photographs of the William P. Gottlieb Collection, including Xavier Cugat and Neal Hefti, whose arrangements for Count Basie‘s classic album Atomic Basie are perhaps too bold for any elevator.
Background music has evolved – famed producer/composer Brian Eno, who has worked with Roxy Music and Talking Heads, and released a celebrated series of his own art-rock solo albums in the 1970’s, began a series of “Ambient” recordings with the minimalistic Music For Airports. In the 21st century, background music at work is mostly supplied by your own earbuds, but from supermarkets to cafes, the tradition of background music lives on – and perhaps, if you stumble into the right elevator, you might still hear the Muzak.
Read more about Otis and his elevator on Today in History for September 20. To learn more about Muzak, visit the Performing Arts Reading Room and ask for the “Industry and Music” subject file. Additional materials may be viewed in the Recorded Sound Reading Room, whose subject files include a run of the trade bulletin Muzak Notes.
Selected contents of the Music Division subject file “Industry and Music”:
- Beckett, Wheeler, Music in War Plants. Washington: War Production Drive Headquarters, August 1943.
- Bibliography on Industrial Music. Radio Corporation of America, RCA Victor Division, Personnel Planning and Research Department, December 1943.
- Dow Diamond, January 1947. A trade journal featuring the article “Music in Industry,” about the Dow Symphony Orchestra, Dow Male Chorus, Dow Girls Chorus and Dow Mixed Chorus, all staged by the Music Department of the Dow Chemical Company.
- Kirkpatrick, Forrest H., “Music in Industry.” Reprinted from The Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 3, June, 1943.
- Lanza, Joseph. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-listening, and other Moodsong. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.