The Sound of Muzak

CALL it elevator music. Or easy-listening music. Or environmental music, ambient music, or background music. By whatever name, the ``business music'' pioneered by Muzak is marking its 60th anniversary this fall. In stores, restaurants, and supermarkets, in airports and offices, Muzak has become an inescapable part of the American cultural landscape. Music for shopping. Music for dining out. Music for working. Music for waiting on hold. Only the most determined hermit can remain out of hearing range.

With its stereotypical reputation for serving up bland instrumental music, Muzak makes an easy target for ridicule. Yet it enjoys a more illustrious history than many critics imagine. The concept dates back to 1922, when a two-star general in the United States Army, George Squier, patented the idea of broadcasting music from phonograph records over electrical lines into homes. What began as Wired Radio was later rechristened Muzak.

In 1939, as the US mobilized for war, factories across the country installed Muzak systems to capitalize on the then-new theory that workplace music improved productivity.

Later, President Eisenhower piped Muzak into the White House. During the Vietnam war, Muzak played in the American Embassy in Saigon. Apollo astronauts even listened to it in their lunar spacecraft.

In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, purveyors of business music abhor a silence. Critics who deride ``elevator music'' for what they regard as its maddening sameness, and who consider its intrusiveness a form of noise pollution, may have a point. Still, there are a lot worse sounds in life than a soothing hum in the background. Blandness can, in fact, be a virtue: At least a listener can tune it out. That is more than can be said for the car stereos blaring other drivers out of their seats in summer traffic, for automobile alarms wailing insistently at 2 a.m. on city streets, or even for some of the thumping rhythms and plaintive vocals booming too loudly from radios and CDs supposedly playing ``background'' music in some restaurants and shops.

In the world of the boom box, two cheers for Muzak. May the company celebrate its 60 years with a ``Happy Birthday'' encore from Mantovani.

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