Why Elevator Music Is So Good

By Kelsey Tang

If you type in “Why is Elevator Music…” into Google, the first search result will be:

 
 

In this digital age where we can access any music at our fingertips — sure, elevator music sounds pretty generic, boring, bad. It’s this bland jingle that you hear in settings associated with idleness: in a waiting room, on hold for two hours with that one airline, or strolling in the grocery aisle and the year is 1940. (We’ll get to the 1940s part in a moment.) The thing is, elevator music was never designed to entertain us. It was designed to be played exactly as background music, just barely there to capture our musical curiosity and then be ignored for the remainder of the time.

Background music is purposely underplayed. You take a song and you give it enough of a melody, enough of a texture, but not too much. It’s a very, very delicate balance.”

Along the way, elevator music became synonymous with soft jazz and bossa nova — two of the most influential genres that we still see making waves in modern music today. Due to the gentle nature of both soft jazz and bossa nova, the two genres fell victim to supermarket radio and lounge bar soundtracks. The easygoing listening enabled patrons to shop a bit slower and linger a moment longer. Soon afterward, listeners found the same music in elevators.

We don’t hear elevator music as often anymore, partially due to how music is so accessible these days via online streaming. But elevator music was the shit back in the 1940s, and that’s why elevator music also feels weirdly like a distant memory — almost like strolling-down-a-grocery-aisle-to-feed-your-nuclear-family vibes.

Behind the old-fashioned tunes was a company called Muzak, founded by Major General George O. Squier. Squier had invented a system to transmit music by means of electrical wires, and consequently founded a company to supply background music for businesses. Muzak was born.

So what instigated the golden age of Muzak’s background music? What propelled Muzak to become universally recognized as elevator music? With World War II a go, industrial production was at an all-time high. Company researchers claimed that Muzak boosted employee morale and productivity. So the company patented a method called Stimulus Progression, instrumental background music designed to provide listeners a “subconscious sense of forward movement.” In other words, music to get shit done fast.

And that’s how Muzak’s background music became the lackluster soundtrack to offices, stores, hotel lobbies — you name it. To millions and millions of ears, that’s how Muzak’s background music ubiquitously became known as elevator music.

The origins of elevator music easily justify its uninspiring boredom that the music evokes: 1) its original intention emphasized workplace productivity 2) it’s typically played in situations with waiting 3) and it’s designed to be ignored. So yeah, elevator music is forgettable and “bad.”

At the same time, elevator music is oddly nostalgic. Its soft jazz and bossa nova melodies are so tame, so malleable that it’s become the foundation to a number of worthy hip-hop tracks.

Of course, elevator music in its most naked state — without the hip-hop embellishments of an 808 or lyrical rhyme — is still so good. It’s gentle and it eases the listener into this unruffled state of calmness. And that calmness is so unrivaled, that even the astronauts of Apollo 11 listened to elevator music before launch.

While we don’t hear elevator music as much anymore, there is a new type of background music infiltrating study and sleep playlists. And that is lo-fi hip-hop, the soundtrack to our sleepless nights spent studying or rainy days spent unwinding. Lo-fi hip-hop, characterized by its repetitive nature and fuzzy hum, was also designed in a similar vein as elevator music: to narrowly occupy our interest, and then be ignored for the remainder of the time.

Guess background music is here to stay, whether in the form of a balmy bossa nova melody or chill lo-fi hip-hop beat.

 
 
Edward Chao