Where does Muzak come from, anyway?

Dear Cecil:

I would like to get a little info about what's involved in making the "music" that's sold by Muzak, which is impossible to avoid if you go into any McDonald's, elevator, etc. It's all around us, but so mysterious. I'm told that it's made in Japan, by heavily sedated Oriental musicians.

Cecil replies:

Muzak is recorded by studio musicians, so the smart aleck in us is inclined to agree that a lot of it is produced under the influence of drugs. (Although from what one hears about them, the Muzak musicians actually are a pretty clean living bunch.) At one time the company claimed it used recording facilities “all over the world,” so we might also wish to conjecture that some of it was made in Japan–although, again, the reality is that one of the main overseas suppliers was the Brno Radio Orchestra of Czechoslovakia. Today, however, much of the music is recorded in a studio in Seattle. The people who make Muzak are the same type of have-guitar-will-travel instrumentalists who do commercial and pop-record sessions. They’re currently cranking it out at a clip of roughly 1,000 new tunes per year, and the company maintains a library of some 5,000 recordings.

In case you haven’t been listening closely–and where Muzak is concerned, who does?–Muzak isn’t as Muzak-y as it used to be. By the late 70s the company had become synonymous with pap and competitors started muscling in on its once exclusive franchise. So the company ditched the 101-Strings-do-Perry-Como and revamped its approach. It now offers 16 thematically-organized channels, 15 of which offer original artist recordings–you may not even realize they’re being brought to you by Muzak. The 16th channel, the Environmental Channel, is closest to the Muzak of old, with familiar tunes re-recorded to lose the vocals and any excessively edgy instrumentals. The music has a more contemporary feel, with tunes by artists ranging from Steely Dan and Bonnie Raitt to Cowboy Junkies.

But some things haven’t changed. The music is still programmed, with the aid of a computer, to counteract the vicissitudes of the typical worker’s daily routine–an idea that dates back to the 1940s. According to Muzak theory, the average Joe’s spirits slacken around 10:30 a.m., pick up in midday, and decline again around 3:00. Accordingly, Muzak gets pretty bouncy in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and downright perky around midnight for the bleary-eyed boys on the graveyard shift. It is programmed in blocks of 15 minutes, with peak excitement (a loosely applied term) coming at the end of each segment. You say you never noticed this? You’re not supposed to. Muzak maestros are masters of subtle manipulation–which has some people worried. Old-fashioned Muzak was easy to hate because it was so pathetic. The new Muzak … well, some of it ain’t bad. A lot of it, in fact, sounds like contemporary radio (albeit minus the vocals, commercials, and annoying DJs). But that means contemporary radio sounds a lot more like Muzak, too.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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