Published On: Sat, Jul 23rd, 2016

What is elevator music and what is it doing to your brain?

It’s not just a term coined by scathing journalists trying to convey the monotony of Coldplay’s discography, elevator music was once a respectable genre. It was invented to serve a much higher purpose than just giving you something to listen to whilst on hold.

Perhaps ironically, given the fits of rage it can induce from the other end of the phone, the original function of elevator music was to calm and sooth. This tinkly, instrumental tranquiliser still crops up in day to day life, though, by design, you may not even have noticed.

What is Muzak?

If music is an art, Muzak is a science. It’s purpose over pleasure; a sound that has been deliberately engineered to produce a psychological response in the listener. The name itself is a combination of the words ‘music’ and ‘kodak’, giving an indication something more artificial and high-tech.

It’s not, strictly speaking, the name of a music genre, but is actually the name of an American company founded in the early 1900’s to experiment with transiting music through electrical wires. By pumping engineered instrumental sounds into commercial and public areas, such as banks and factories, the company believed the environment could be, to some extent, controlled.

Muzak enjoyed a brief spell of success before radio technology became more developed and more popular. During the 1940’s, one study showed that playing Muzak-style music to factory workers increased their productivity and boosted morale.

The fateful moment Muzak was first introduced into passenger elevators didn’t come until the end of the twentieth century. Rudimental lifts had been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until the first skyscrapers boom that they started to focus on design and comfort – cue the Muzak. During the journey, the instrumental noises acted like an aural tranquilliser, soothing the nerves of anxious, claustrophobic passengers who were still unfamiliar with elevator travel.

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The influence of elevator music in everyday life

The terms elevator music and Muzak have become synonymous; they describe in-offensive background sounds which are heard but never listened to. Although the vast majority of lifts and banks have moved away from soothing soundtracks, there are still some environments which use Muzak to try and manipulate listener behaviour.

For the retail industry, being able to exert influence over the emotions and actions of potential customers is a always a high priority. There have been numerous studies into the effects of music on consumer behaviour to try and determine which genres and tempos encourage people to part with the most cash.

Earlier in the year, Marks & Spencers decided to put an end to all their in-store music after carrying out its own research into customer and staff experiences. Their decision prompted debate among many other psychologists and researchers, some arguing that M&S was loosening control over its customers and would see profit diminish as a result.

Store development specialists OCS Retail Support, identified impulse buyers as one of the most important consumer targets for sales promotion strategies. Impulse purchases account for a significant percentage of items in the average customer basket; techniques which encourage this behaviour are, therefore, important.

Slow tempo music, has been found to encourage impulse buyers. These shoppers are guided by their mood and emotions, the psychological lift provided by elevator music improves their mood, thus prompting an increase in spending.

So perhaps Marks & Sparks’ profits will take a dip, or perhaps customers will breathe a sigh of relief. Modern day equivalents of Muzak, following the same psychological principles, focus on optimising sounds to increase sales and customer satisfaction. But if deployed “mindlessly” – as one sound engineer suggested retail stores are beginning to do – it becomes tiresome and has the wrong effect. The engineer went on to describe going into a quiet M&S store: “Suddenly, there was a bit of peace. You felt your whole body slow down and you thought, thank goodness.”