The ‘Science’ of Muzak at Work

muzak dial

The El Pinto Chicken Farm in Albuquerque’s North valley uses cutting-edge techniques to maximize quality. Apparently they harvest the finest, eggiest eggs that you can taste. Why so good? As claimed by El Pinto, it’s partly because of the Beethoven compositions played for their beloved chickens.

Yes, this is a marketing ploy but it is well-known that music has the power to influence in various ways. When skyscrapers were first built, music was played in elevators to ease the nerves of inexperienced passengers during an otherwise anxious high-rise transport – hence ‘Elevator music’. Music played for patients during and around the time of their surgery has been shown to reduce anxiety.

But can music maximize productivity? According to Muzak corporation’, to whom we owe ‘elevator music’, the answer was a definite “Yes” and the research put towards achieving this effect was remarkable, if not dubious.

During the Second World War, factory work supporting the war-effort was an uneasy undertaking. Soon it was found through surveys, that workers appreciated music being played while they worked. After the war, in the continuing spirit of Taylorism, Muzak sought to systematically harness the potential in music to increase productivity during monotonous, repetitive tasks. Firstly, vocals were taken out of their factory music because they were deemed distracting. The idea was to produce a ‘functional’ music that was valued for its ignorability and it’s ability to subconsciously increase worker output. It was said to be “music that is heard but not listened to.”

Their efforts were initially based on the studies of Charles Disirens in the 1930’s. Diserens is noted for, for example, analyzing typists’ output collected after music played for participants in the background. He concluded that music could regulate movements through rhythm, increase worker attention, and instill ‘value’ through music’s direct physiological properties. Equally influential was the Yerkes-Dodson law (1908), stating that performance is maximally increased with only a moderate increase in arousal. It was thought that Muzak would be the perfect stimulant.

Armed with such knowledge, Muzak’s ‘scientific’ consultants Harold Burris-Meyer and Richard Cardinell, faculty from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, were placed in charge of developing what was called ‘Stimulus Progression’; Mazak’s hallmark ‘scientific’ development. Stimulus progression consisted of segments of music that gradually increased in stimulating effect, reducing worker fatigue during typical morning and afternoon slumps. This was achieved using a unique formula, involving the quantification of ‘mood’ as affected by a number of musical variables.

As a starting point, worker ‘fatigue curves’ were established according to time of day. As described by Cardinell in 1946:

“The first consideration is to determine the variation of employee fatigue… Experimentation in the past has proven that the most effective method of obtaining the required stimulus is by using constant progression of musical brightness throughout the group of selections; brightness may be obtained from several roots: tempo, instrumentation, musical arrangement, melodic line or incidental rhythm. All these factors contribute to the mood of the selection.”

offices fatigue curve

Stimulus progression was applied to music programming throughout the entire workday in a manner that mirrored the fatigue curves . However, a “group of selections” only lasted approximately 15 minutes, the songs themselves lasting between 2 and 3.5 minutes each. These groups of songs were followed by 15 or 30-minute periods of silence, as it was found that regardless of changes in “brightness,” constant music contributed to the monotony of the work, decreasing productivity. Within these 15-minute groups values associated with the different root factors (e.g. rhythm) were varied from song to song, but increased on average. This variation was also instrumental in preventing monotony caused by the music itself.

The key element was tempo – the pace of the music measured in beats per minute. Tempo was varied between 40 and 130 bpm. The change in tempo in the muzak songs was centered on 72 bpm, around the average human heart rate. Gradually increasing the overall tempo from the tempo of the first song in the selection was thought to be essential for affecting a worker’s perception of movement through time.


Rhythm, closely related to tempo, was also varied systematically during a selection of songs. Rhythm is defined by the form of temporal movement, created by the timing between accented and non-accented beats. These timings included sambas (2/2), foxtrots (3/4), quick-steps (6/8) and waltzes (4/4). As with tempo, there would be an overall increase in the tempo across a selection of tracks.


Instrumentation was another key element with ‘stimulus’ values corresponding to types of instruments that dominated the songs. Strings were considered to be softest. Woodwinds, saxophones and oboes filled the middle ground and brass instrumentation being the hardest and most stimulating (heavy percussion in Muzak was a nish nish – again, too distracting). The ratings were specifically tied to the timbre of the instruments – their unique tonal colour or quality defined by the physical aspects of the instrument that produce the sound.

As stated by muzak programmers:

“…the strings produce a more colorful quality of sound. Most dominating and emotionally exciting are the brasses: the trumpets and trombones. In conjunction with the strings and woodwinds, the quality of sound is rich and full-bodied. By eliminating the soft-strings the remaining woodwinds and brasses produce an even more exciting and stimulating sound. (MUZAK, 1956:8)…”


Finally, the last component in the stimulus progression formula was orchestra size. This was the most difficult factor because of qualitative differences in the sound of one or more of the same instrument, the instrumentation and the composition of the piece.

orchestra size

Below is a composite of all these elements for an actual selection of songs. Notice the variation in each but a linearly increasing ‘stimulus progression’ throughout the segment. While most are likely to agree that overall, this clever methodology might indeed have achieved some results, the ‘mood’ curve is not in the realm of anything that was measured directly. The only research to consult is Muzak’s own and one can guess their conclusions.

composite muzak

Ironically, progressing variation was the foundation to muzak’s stimulus progression yet too much variation in any respect of these musical attributes was thought to make it distracting and ultimately detrimental to the company’s bottom line. Thus, listeners were left with some of the prettiest, but blandest, most artistically compromised and unemotional music ever made. Indeed, the idea of creating ‘functional music’ as a commodity, piped into places of monotonous work has been considered by some as pivotal move in the subversion of culture and meaning in society. They note that previously, songs were commonly sung by workers as a meaningful activity that made time appear to pass faster, work seem easier and camaraderie grow. Muzak they argue was the ultimate commodification of music; an invisible product used by corporations as a form of “sonic surveillance” and a tool for unconsciously manipulating people. It is argued to have been an ever-present symbol of authority and control, permeating the space around workers while they completed their tasks, in guise of making work more pleasant. James Keenen, Ph.D., once Chairman of Muzak’s Board of Scientific Advisors claims that “Muzak promotes the sharing of meaning because it massifies symbolism in which not few but all can participate.” If this was true, why isn’t anyone participating in Muzak in present times? Did anyone ever participate in Muzak? Although singing work songs is a thing of the past, thankfully we can often listen to our own music if we wish to.

(Images obtained from Jerri Ann Husch’s PhD thesis on muzak and culture. They are referenced to “MUZAK, 1965” and are permissible under the Fair Use Index).


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