Muzak. Name of a company formed to record and program a specially prepared music product, bearing the same name as the company, for distribution mainly to public environments in which it is intended to affect its hearers psychologically in specific ways without drawing undue attention to itself or making any demand to be listened to consciously.

In Canada, as in 20-odd other countries, this US brand of programmed background music is ubiquitous. The brand-name has been so successful as to be used generically - like Xerox, Coke, and Kleenex. Its inventors and franchise-owners are quick to point out that not all background music is Muzak; there are several competing companies.

Muzak Inc started in New York in 1934. Its product was nurtured by the 'music while you work' movement in World War II, and the company began its international growth in the immediate post-war period. Its earliest Canadian franchises date from 1946.

Distinguishing Muzak from at least some of its competitors ('soothing-sound' radio stations, tape-rental libraries) are its controlled choice and arrangement of musical selections and its special programming approach. Material is chosen from a wide popular-song and show-tune repertoire; ethnic, religious (including gospel), country, and Hawaiian pieces are avoided, as are songs of emotional passion, protest songs, and songs whose catchiness might incite physical responses (for example, rhythmic clapping). Though almost all the melodies used are from songs, arrangements for Muzak were, for many years, purely instrumental. This policy began to change in the mid 1980s when original songs, complete with vocals but still with that soothing sound, were inserted into the mix to appeal to the 'adult contemporary' market. This version of Muzak is used especially in locations such as restaurants. At the same time some regionalized music selections began to be introduced to cater to local tastes. Musisélect has, beginning in 1984, created a mix of Quebec and international music for use in the Montreal area. An earlier firm, Omnison, established by Stéphane Venne in 1978, created background music based totally on Quebec repetoire. An Omnison by-product was a six-record album, subsidized by a grant from the Quebec Ministry of Communications and distributed by Kébec-Disc (6-KDM-967-972), containing smooth instrumental versions of 108 tunes by 58 Quebec chansonniers. (The album was distributed abroad by RCI.).

Muzak arrangements feature steady tempo, steady solo-tutti relationship, uninterrupted phrase-continuity, smooth joins between sections, absence of dramatic highs or sudden silences, and a definite beginning and end to each item (rather than the expressive or impressionistic fade-out effects of commercial recordings). Muzak describes itself in promotional literature as 'music with the entertainment value removed,' a vaguely pleasurable musical sound that 'does not require conscious listening.'

Muzak moreover regards itself as 'a technique of contemporary management,' and therefore not a medium of art or entertainment. Its programming distinguishes three services respectively available by contract to offices, industrial plants, and public areas (one might term them the white-collar, the blue-collar, and the all-purpose). The office and industrial services arrange songs in 15-minute groups (separated by 15-minute breaks), each showing a general tempo sequence from slow to quick. The intensity and pace of the groups themselves also increase and decrease over a workday cycle corresponding to highs and lows of workers' monotony or other environmental and psychological factors determined by the New York office's 'human engineering department.' In these two services, surveys commissioned by the company demonstrate Muzak's positive effects in combating fatigue and monotony, decreasing error rates and job turnover rates, and increasing productivity (especially, as one promotional pamphlet says, with those of 'lower educational background') - and therefore also profits.

The 'public' service is similar in repertoire but more continuous, since besides its mood function it is intended to 'mask' ambient sounds (conversation, the clatter of dishes, shopping-carts, and cash registers). Public areas infiltrated by Muzak include restaurants, supermarkets, banks, car salesrooms, apartment elevators, school corridors, and funeral homes. It has been installed in many doctors' and dentists' offices and is also used as a supplement to anaesthesia in some hospital operating rooms. When a caller by phone to the Muzak Inc office is placed on 'hold' he or she is treated to Muzak. A separate service by mobile tapes covers planes and trains.

Licensed to convey its product by wireless radio and phone lines in Canada, Muzak Inc thereby has been subject to CRTC Canadian-content regulations. Thus, since the early 1970s a certain portion of its recording has been done in Canadian studios by Canadian performers. Its repertoire has remained overwhelmingly of US origin, its arrangements entirely so. It has paid performing-rights royalties to Canadian licensing bodies for the use of copyrighted songs.

The Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer has questioned the validity of Muzak's claim to 'mask' less desirable sounds such as factory machines or supermarket clatter. He has satirized the famous brand-name, calling it 'Moo-zak' and has described the product, in its growing ubiquity, as an invasion of privacy and a denial of freedom of choice. He also sees in Muzak the seed of a general dulling of aesthetic sensitivity, whereby the inescapable exposure to its quasi-music could make unwary ears gradually less and less receptive to the conscious listening experiences not only of true art- and entertainment-music but also of the natural environment.

See also New age music.

Further Reading

  • Magner, Brian. 'The cocoon of sound Muzak spins,' Toronto Globe Magazine, 25 Dec 1959

    Noble, June. 'Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, she shall have Muzak wherever she goes,' Toronto Telegram, 2 Nov 1968

    Winters, Kenneth. 'And, says Kenneth Winters, it must stop,' ibid

    Hertz, Kenneth. 'Sounds ubiquitous,' Montreal Scene, 19 Nov 1977

    Lanken, Dane. 'The sweet sound of aural soma,' Recorder, vol 20, Jun 1978

    Levitch, Gerald. 'Up to our ears,' (Toronto Star) The City, 1 Apr 1979

    Beaulieu, Pierre. 'Un ''Muzak'' québécois,' Montreal La Presse, 24 Feb 1979

    Petrowski, Nathalie. 'Et en avant la Musak!' Montreal Le Devoir, 24 Feb 1979

    'Muzak's future is looking sound,' Calgary Herald, 1 Oct 1983

    'Facing the Muzak,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 28 Jul 1984

    'Muzak to be played with rock firm,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 8 Jan 1987

    'Rise of elevator music: much maligned Muzak spawns sound-alikes,' Montreal Gazette, 4 Aug 1989

    Légaré, Félix. 'Hé sirop!' Voir, 12 Dec 1990

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