By Martin Moritz
‘Muzak’ is one of those words that is always used in a contemptuous way and it is not difficult to understand why. It is so pervasive that the more paranoid of us may well suspect that there is a global conspiracy to cause irreparable damage to our mental state, rather like musical ‘germ warfare’. It seems no place is immune from it. We are constantly aurally assaulted in lifts, hotels, pubs, bars, supermarkets, shops, waiting rooms and, surely demanding a Freudian analysis, public toilets.
It is generally bland, undemanding, unmusical and overwhelmingly irritating. Even Mozart and Vivaldi, who could hardly be called unmusical, have been subjugated and forced to wear a Muzak straight-jacket. Have we not been reduced to near hysteria while both composers’ works are incessantly played as we wait interminably to be connected on the ‘phone? It is certainly ironic that the ethos of Muzak, which, among other things, was designed to aid concentration, lend a harmonious atmosphere and create equable moods, did the exact reverse. However, these very benefits which would have an adverse effect on the public are to be found in many recordings which utilise background and mood music in a much more specific, valid and beneficial way .
The origin of this innovation in domestic listening is to be found in the late 1940s. One of the repercussions of the Second World War was a radical change in the American way of life that would include the nation’s musical tastes. Families were confronted with a marketing onslaught that had an underlying message of more, newer and better. At the core of the campaign was homes of the future which would include appliance-filled kitchens and luxuriant, softly-lit living rooms. Indeed, buyers were praised as patriotic citizens boosting a flagging economy, the result of fifteen years of depression.
Music would play an integral part in complementing this new life-style. The dynamic, extrovert Swing music of the war years was clearly unsuitable for relaxing to in the calm surroundings of these utopian homes. What was required was appropriate music that was much more in keeping, music that was soft, understated and mood evoking. These new homes would have ‘themed-rooms’ and there would be background/mood album concepts specifically created to musically enhance them. So there was music suitable for male-dominated dens, patios, play-rooms, dining-rooms, bedrooms and even barbecues. Thankfully, the toilet was not considered. One could immerse oneself in symbolic music that offered romance, induced relaxation, that soothed and calmed, that could whisk one away to exotic locations and trigger imaginary adventures. The records’ sleeve designs capitalised on this aura of ‘gracious living’ drawing on romantic novels, stylised magazine adverts, films and television for their inspiration , all reflecting an idealised life-style.
One factor that was pivotal to the sales of mood music was the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948. The annoying necessity of having to continually turn over 78 rpm records with an average duration of around three minutes each side was replaced by the ease of a single and more robust disc that offered up to thirty minutes per side of continuous, cleaner reproduction. The advantages of sustaining a mood or a theme were substantial.
WH Auden described the 1930s as the ‘Age of Anxiety’ but, judging by the plethora of LPs that were released to help ease the load of daily life, it could well apply to that decade. RCA Records, for example, released a series of albums featuring George Melachrino that were formulated to reduce stress and create happier dispositions. Equally, Capitol issued six thematic LPs with an overall title that grandly proclaimed: ‘Background Music – Music Blended to Mix Graciously with Social Gatherings’. An early release from Reader’s Digest, which had created a music division in 1960, was a ten LP collection entitled ‘Background Moods’ that featured music for a wide range of moods and themes including carefree, wistful, intimate, dancing , exotic, haunting, soothing, latin, swinging and festive.
There were concepts such as ‘Music for Faith and Inner Calm’, ‘Music to Help You Sleep’, ‘Music for Courage and Confidence’, ‘Music for Daydreaming’, ‘Music for Dining’, ‘Music for a Rainy Night’ and ‘Music for a Nostalgic Traveller’. Some themes bordered on the bizarre seemingly to embrace any form of work, function or recreation: ‘Music for Washing and Ironing’, ‘Music for Baby-Sitters’, ‘How to Belly –Dance for Your Husband’ (yes, really!), ‘Music to Paint By’, ‘Music to Make Housework Easier’, ‘Music for a French Dinner at Home’ and ‘Music for Cooking with Gas – A La Carte’, which had the sub-title ‘Music that’s Rare and Well-Done!
There was even an album of music to help one stop smoking which "will relax you, make you feel good, and keep your hand from groping toward a pack of cigarettes. Reach for a melodious bud….instead of a butt". If this did not work, there were LPs of courses in hypnosis and self-hypnosis that might. There was help on hand as well if the neighbours were continually playing loud, bothersome music although ‘Music to Break a Lease’ or ‘Music to Break a Sub-Lease’ could not actually guarantee it. Its object was defeated by the music which was not of the 1812 Overture variety but sing-along 1920s tunes! One wonders why they bothered.
The sleeve-notes would reinforce the therapeutic benefits of background, mood music. Here is an example from an album entitled ‘Soft & Easy in Percussion’:
‘Soft and easy is a mood. Soft and easy is also a style of music which is prescribed only for dreamy listening. Add percussion to this and you have music for dreamy, relaxed listening. This is an album for those who take their musical pleasures subdued and with ease….The ingredients for your soft and easy mood are all here within the jacket of this album. Close the doors, shut the windows and turn off the telephone……’
Domestic stereo arrived in 1958 and the industry, unsurprisingly, released an extraordinary number of albums produced solely to convey the vitality of stereo techniques. Most made for disconcerting listening with one being subjected to a form of aural tennis as one’s head shot from right to left and vice-versa so as to catch the array of sounds coming from each speaker. Inevitably, technological novelty would also require musical novelty, and, accordingly, producers and engineers began to explore uncharted musical areas so as to exploit a melodic canvas which seemed tailor-made for this new format.
So ensued a seemingly unending flow of exotic-sounding LPs invariably featuring Spanish, Mexican, South American and Gypsy melodies. Whole Pacific island cultures were practically invented for the sake of rhythmic and sonic innovation. Ultimately, although initially developed to create a more ‘realistic’ sense of sound in space, record companies finally realised that they needed to demonstrate the superiority of the advances in stereo more literally and less ‘realistically’ as it turned out. This, as it transpired, would fit very comfortably with a burgeoning style that would become known as ‘easy listening’.
This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’, issue 195 dated April 2013.
Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.