It’s the late 1930s. You’re in New York for the first time from out of state and have just arrived at the Chrysler Building for a job interview. You’re overwhelmed by the city and nervous about the interview itself. The building is taller than anything you’ve ever seen, and to reach the top floors you’re ushered into a small cube-like box called “an elevator.” You’ve heard of these things, but it’s your first time traveling in one. And you’re uneasy about it. Suddenly the elevator is full and the suited operator closes the doors, presses some buttons and your stomach lurches as you start to rise.
Slow, even-paced and slightly jazzy, it doesn’t sound like anything you recognize. In fact, you very quickly forget it’s even playing. Remarkably though, once you reach your floor you feel rather calm, leaving your fears behind in the elevator and walking out with your head held high, ready to get the job. And completely unaware that you’ve just had your first experience with functional music.
That – or so the story goes – is how “elevator music” got its name. The public were understandably nervous about traveling in new-fangled elevators back when they were first developed, so building owners embraced the idea of playing soothing, innocuous background music to calm passengers down. But to understand the actual origins of so-called “muzak”, we need to look back a little further…
FROM STIMULUS PROGRESSION TO QUANTUM MODULATION
It began in the 1920s, with an inventor and army general by the name of George Owen Squier. Part of the U.S. Army’s signal corps, General Squier was responsible for some important telephone inventions and held numerous patents in the field. He was also intrigued by the idea of music influencing productivity, for which he came up with a technique called “Stimulus Progression.” With the technique – which was used in factories at the time – workers were played 15-minute blocks of music that steadily increased in tempo and volume, so that they would unconsciously speed up their pace accordingly.
Squire’s first company delivered this music via telephone (appropriately named Wired Music) as radio technology at the time was relatively expensive and cumbersome to set up. Squier came to the conclusion that his future lay not on the factory floor, but in retail. By now it was the roaring 50s and retailers wanted calming music to pipe into their stores. The theory was if customers felt relaxed, they would stay in stores longer and buy more goods. The company resurfaced with a far more memorable name that has become synonymous with it’s product: Muzak. His company would build up a massive catalog of “elevator music” (later, commercially recorded music based on pop hits) and an associated image that would forever be embedded in popular culture. Ironically, the Muzak company never actually produced music for elevators!
The story of Muzak essentially ended in 2011, when the company was acquired by a customer experience corporation called Mood Media. In the US alone, Muzak’s catalog was playing some three million tracks in as many as 300,000 locations. So while the trademarked entity no longer exists, the muzak itself plays on – and is likely to be in our ears for many years to come…
BUT CAN MUSIC REALLY IMPROVE YOUR PRODUCTIVITY AT WORK?
Companies like Muzak convinced their clients that the music piped into their malls, kitchens and hotel lobbies made things run more smoothly but it’s unclear what evidence actually supported these claims. Fortunately, more recent studies have provided deeper insights into the capacity for music to effect mood and productivity in ways that would have likely tickled the old general.
While there is little information to evaluate if Squier’s “Stimulus Progression” technique actually worked, we know that co-ordinated movement to music has documented emotional and physical effects. A recent study showed that when people move synchronously to music in a group they reported having a higher threshold for pain and feeling more socially connected. This could have real implications for jobs that involve strenuous physical activity like construction — though it seems unlikely that you’ll be seeing a work crew in a choreoCo-Ordinated Dancing Theregraphed dance anytime soon.