June 1955 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Most people probably associate
"elevator music" with the Muzak format. It became a registered trademark
in 1954, although Muzak broadcasting was around a couple decades before that. Muzak
music has also played in doctors' offices, restaurants, government public service
facilities, buses, retail stores, and even workplaces (to provide calm and cadence
for workers). According to the Wikipedia entry, the term "Muzak " was coined by
its inventor, George Owen Squier (Major General, ret.) as a play on the made-up
term "Kodak;" i.e., "Muz" (music) + "ak." Over the years, a lot of scientific research
went into Muzak's format including genre of music, tempo, silence ("dead") time,
volume, etc. Muzak has changed hands many times, including to Westinghouse, until
it finally declared bankruptcy in 2010. If you type "muzak.com" into your
browser now, you get redirected to moodmedia.com. Rumors have it that rocker
Ted Nugent tried to buy Muzak in 1986 just to shut it down because
it represented "all that is uncool about music."
The Muzak Story
Muzak programs are transcribed from master discs onto magnetic
tape by these recorders. Reels are then shipped to franchisers.
Improved service, greater range of selections, wider audiences, higher fidelity,
and smoother operation are anticipated from recent changes behind the scenes at
Muzak's New York headquarters. A remarkable new tape playback unit is the electronic
cornerstone of this expansion move by the organization which has been furnishing
background music in restaurants and other public places for twenty years.
Designed by Muzak engineers, the tape unit is started and stopped automatically
by subsonic signals on the tapes containing the musical programs. Desired music
for special occasions, such as Christmas carols, may be preselected. In addition,
the unit reverses the tape at the end of the 4800-foot reel, changes tracks, automatically
rewinds, and shuts itself off and cuts in a companion tape mechanism. Since two
of these playback units operating in tandem can play programmed music on tape indefinitely
and automatically, Muzak maintains that the new system has not only eliminated human
error from the operation, but has reduced operating procedures to one visit a day
to change the reels in the studio.
The tapes themselves, upon which Muzak records its own programs, are mounted
on reels that can run a full eight hours, 4 hours in one direction on one track,
and then 4 more hours on the other track in the opposite direction.
Master disc is played on transcription turntable as Muzak technician
adjusts controls to assure proper feeding of signals into banks of tape recorders.
Tapes and playback units are shipped from Muzak's headquarters to its nearly
100 franchised operators. More than 400 communities are now serviced in this manner
throughout the United States as well as in Lima, Peru; Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal
in Canada; Mexico City; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Honolulu. It is estimated that
50 million people hear some portion of a Muzak program each day.
Three Types of Programs
Locations serviced by Muzak include restaurants, supermarkets, banks, department
stores, business offices, and industrial plants. Three different kinds of programs
have been developed to meet the calculated needs of these diverse situations. First,
there is the "basic" program, consisting of a wide variety of classical and semi-classical
music, show tunes, and popular songs (without vocals). Aimed at public places such
as banks, restaurants and stores, this program is divided into 15 minute segments,
with 12 1/2 minutes of music and 2 1/2 of silence. The silent period is calculated
to prevent the unwelcomed effects of too constant background music.
The second type of program, intended for offices, features a narrower variety
of selections which omits classical music. This program is on for 15 minutes and
off for 15 minutes, starting on the quarter-hour.
The third, and most recent type, is the industrial program. Planned for factories
and plants, this program comprises popular and show tunes exclusively and includes
vocal selections. This program is scheduled like the office program - 15 minutes
on and 15 off - but starts on the hour. Thus the factory schedule dovetails the
office schedule, permitting an entire plant to be serviced simultaneously from one
Music Played by " Name Bands"
The musical selections themselves are obtained through a unique process. A composition
is chosen. A special arrangement is made by staff musicians. The piece is then played
for a recording session by one of the many "big-name" bands in the country, although
the listener would never recognize the band since its playing is strictly in line
with Muzak's arrangement and rules regarding tempo, volume, and orchestral effects.
The master disc thus recorded is then used to make tape transcriptions. Tapes are
recorded on 16-inch reels running at 3-3/4 i.p.s. using dual tracks. Subsonic signals,
to be used later for switching on and off the playback units, are also recorded
onto the tape.
At one of Muzak's franchises, the tape is played back. Signals are fed to local
amplifiers and thence, via lines, to the nearest telephone office. From here the
signal is fed into lines that carry the music to the individual Muzak subscribers
in that area. At the subscriber's installation, the signal is fed into a booster
amplifier and finally to the loudspeaker.
All the electronic equipment, including amplifiers and speakers, are Muzak products.
Like the music itself, they are designed and built to Muzak specifications.
This chart, furnished by Muzak, shows the success of planned
music in reducing lost time in one plant. Early departures dropped from 2.52% of
man-hours during the two weeks before music was used to only 0.845% during the four
weeks after Muzak was installed, representing a decrease of 66%. These measurements
were made by the Stevens Institute of Technology. Muzak's conclusions: a cheerful
worker is a better worker; the right kind of music helps make, and keep, men happy.
Muzak's 7000 different musical selections make it possible never to program the
same number more than once a day; usually it is not necessary to repeat it for an
entire week. The unique tonal qualities of this music have occasioned comment by
many listeners. Muzak's programs are noted for their subdued overtones, lack of
stridency, and over-all "mellowness ". This quality is not an indication of musical
ignorance on the part of the organization, but a deliberate attempt to provide the
kind of music that makes good background for various activities. According to Muzak,
this music actually helps people work, shop, or dine, and is non-distracting. The
philosophy behind Muzak is that such music cheers people, boosts morale, increases
the positive psychological factors in human behavior, helps increase work output,
minimizes fatigue, and makes public places more pleasant so that large numbers of
people can function smoothly without running each other down. In line with these
points, the programming and timing of the music are based on the "Standard Fatigue
Curve" developed by psychologists.
Because the music is designed primarily as background and to blend into the surrounding
atmosphere, the over-all response of the system is controlled to permit the transmission
of "tones that just penetrate the noise barrier" created by any given set of activities
and people. Described by Muzak as a "controlled high fidelity that preserves the
quality of the original performance, but eliminates all irritating highs," this
music is played and reproduced in such a way as not to call attention to itself.
It simply serves as a psychological aid to whatever else is going on. Experience,
tests, and increasing franchises all seem to indicate that for fulfilling its avowed
aims, "music by Muzak" is here to stay!