Music: Trapped in a Musical Elevator

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The first Muzak recording in 1934 was a medley of Whispering, Do You Ever Think of Me? and Here in My Arms, performed by Sam Lanin's orchestra. The first customers were householders in the Lakeland section of Cleveland, who were offered, for $1.50 a month, three channels ranging from dance music to news. As a novelty, Muzak might well have gone the way of Sam Lanin's orchestra. But a series of experiments started in the late 1930s provided Muzak with the secret that converted base music into gold.

The secret was that music could get more work out of people. Eureka! An early test, conducted at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, showed or purported to show that "functional music" in a workplace reduced absenteeism by 88% and early departures by 53%. Other tests produced even richer results. When The Blue Danube was piped into a dairy in McKeesport, Pa., the cows gave more milk; recordings inspired chickens to lay more eggs. The coming of World War II made this more than a matter of money: thousands of U.S. factories, arsenals and shipyards were wired for music and increased production by as much as 11%.

Muzak is still conducting such tests, and still crowing over the results. At a firm called Precision Small Parts Inc. in Charlottesville, Va., for example, Muzak spent three months last year testing six women who spent their dreary days deburring very small items with dental drills. With Muzak in their ears, they deburred 16.8% more than before. Other tests showed that if music can make people produce more, it can also make them buy more. Sedately paced melodies in a supermarket slowed down customers enough so that they spent 38% more money.

Muzak enthusiasts argue that there is a great tradition of music as an accompaniment to work. "It did so in the fields behind the great castles and monasteries of the middle ages," says Keenan. "It did so on shipboard and in the taverns where sailors met to sing their chanteys." Keenan has even unearthed a songbook once issued by a youthful industrial firm, which included a spirited ditty called Ever Onward Ever Onward: "Our reputation sparkles like a gem/ We've fought our way through and new/ Fields we're sure to conquer too/ Forever onward IBM."

The gentler inspirations that Muzak calls "environmental music" work for several reasons, particularly for people subject to either stress or boredom. Music is soothing. Oddly enough, Muzak even claims that its recordings make workers feel more in control of their environment and more cared for by their employers. Most important, though, is that workers slow down in mid-morning and midafternoon, and music can counteract that. Muzak's selections get faster as the workers near those slack periods. The company calls that "stimulus progression."

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