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Industrial Muzak (The Science of Muzak, Part 1)

By Rob Mitchum | 3.26.07

What if I told you there was a corporation that had unlocked the secret of using music to shape human behavior, and that these sonic puppetmasters were selling their services to anyone that met their price? That they had devised methods of musically hypnotizing workers to increase their productivity, concentration and workplace attitude? That retailers hired the company to craft custom soundtracks meant to court and entice their target demographics into their stores? That Hollywood producers sought out their advice in order to generate the intended emotional responses from unwitting cinema audiences?

Now what if I told you that this diabolical corporation was Muzak, and that they’ve been selling these abilities, proven or otherwise, for more than seventy years? Yes, Muzak, the notorious purveyors of auditory Spam -- in both meanings of the word -- responsible for the mass-produced, watered-down versions of once-popular hits that are shoveled into your captive ears as you grocery-shop and waiting-room. Muzak isn’t just slang for this ubiquitous background noise, it’s also the name of a corporation that’s been around since 1934, founded by an electrical-engineering Army general based on technology he invented during World War I. Since then, Muzak has gone through many incarnations, each one purported to be based upon scientific ideals -- as they put it, they are “specialists in the physiological and psychological applications of music.”

That haughty self-description comes from the back of a record I found during my vinyl-hunting younger days, a for-promotion-only release with a front sleeve boasting nothing but the Muzak logo, some vomitish abstract art, and the tantalizing phrase Stimulus Progression. On the back, under the headline “A Unique Programming Concept” is this quite colorful figure, charting an ascending gradient along the x-axis of “Muzak Mood Rating” and the y-axis of “Stimulus Value.” The liner notes name-drop Darwin and Salk, claim advances in “humanizing man-made environments,” and boast of the contents’ ability to help millions become happier and healthier, including children, workers, and “retarded people.”

Stimulus Progression was rolled out by Muzak in the 40s as a special music program made for workplaces, built upon the observation that productivity and morale improved when music was piped in over a factory floor or typist pool. However, SP sought to take this phenomenon to the next level, not by merely blasting random music out of the loudspeaker, but rather by tailoring the flow between different songs to maximize the function of this occupational soundtrack, sort of like an office DJ. Through decades of in-house research, much of it unavailable to prying scientific eyes, Muzak’s experts settled upon a repeated hour-long pattern, where songs built in intensity (as marked by tempo, # of instruments, and rhythmic complexity) in three 15-minute blocks, followed by a 15-minute block of silence to give the ears a break. Subconsciously, this subtle crescendo would drive all workers in earshot to greater levels of productivity, concentration, and even lower blood pressure – presumably good for keeping the health insurance premiums down.

Now a connection between music listening and increased workplace efficiency and satisfaction is, at least anecdotally, pretty widely accepted these days. Chances are you already “self-medicate” yourself by continuously playing your iPod or radio as you work (or while you read this article to avoid work). But back in the 40s, when music was a less ubiquitous presence in our daily lives, theories like the ones underlying Muzak’s Stimulus Progression were pretty exciting stuff, and were tested up and down by industrial psychologists looking for ways to improve factory output – the small matter of World War II likely helped with the funding. Most of these studies are piles of dust on library shelves by now, but review articles tell us that they came to a couple consensus conclusions: First, that the simpler or more repetitive the task, the larger the musical impact on output, and second, the idea that vocals were generally distracting (unless very familiar to the listener), and therefore that instrumental tracks were ideal.

These basic findings, however anecdotal, were enough to fuel the sale of Muzak’s Stimulus Progression program and inspire the BBC to start a show for British factories called Music While You Work. But as is usually the case with any scientific discovery, there was a split amongst researchers as to the nature of music’s industrial benefit, with some arguing that the effect was via musical tempo controlling a worker’s speed (the physiological effect) and some arguing that music increased productivity by helping a worker stave off boredom (the psychological effect). Some studies, like this 1966 experiment in a skateboard factory (they had skateboards in 1966?) even argued that the effect of workplace music was purely psychological; workers reported less boredom and a faster day, but no objective effect upon quality or quantity of skateboard output could be found.

One would expect more recent studies, with all the technological wonders our modern scientific age can boast, to clear up this issue somewhat. But, as you may have observed, Muzak’s popularity hasn’t exactly been sustained since the mid-20th century, and the corporation itself has since shifted its focus away from industrial productivity to “audio architecture,” the use of music to sculpt a customer or moviegoer’s emotions. Still, the concept of Stimulus Progression remains an interesting one: was it, as many now claim, merely pseudoscience, or was there something to the idea of ascending “intensity” spurring on a more productive workday? In other words, when the labwork isn’t going so well, should I be doing something more subtle and effective than just playing INXS’ Kick at irresponsibly high volumes?

First, on a physiological basis, Muzak’s claims do seem to be on the level. Since 1918, it’s been known that music can have an effect upon parameters like heart rate and blood pressure, though these effects were attributed less to tempo and more to tone: minor tones increased the pulse and lowered the blood pressure, while the big, major-key peaks increased both. Later studies also showed an effect of music upon respiratory rate, as well as reducing various markers of stress and anxiety (previously covered here). Recently, a study by Luciano Bernardi and colleagues found that pulse and respiration actually show entrainment with musical tempo; that is, the biological processes synchronize (albeit not at a 1:1 rate) with the music being played. Intriguingly, when periods of silence were introduced between musical stimuli, the test subjects in this study showed a reduction in heart rate and respiration below baseline levels, supporting the Stimulus Progression’s 15-minute “timeout” period as a way to reset a worker’s physiology.

But the fact that an ascending pattern of musical tempo and complexity is likely to increase one’s pulse and breathing rate doesn’t directly confirm any ensuing increase in productivity; it might just mean you sweat through your dress shirt on a more regular basis. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find any studies that have tackled this more complex potential connectivity between music, physiology, and workplace behavior, at least outside of the Muzak secret vaults. The next best thing are studies examining music’s effects on heart rate and exercise, where studies consistently find that louder and faster music increases a person’s pulse as well as running speed on a treadmill or cycling rate on a stationary bike. The latter study actually found that a slow-to-fast music condition, similar to the Stimulus Progression concept, produced the highest workload and exerciser satisfaction. So it appears that, at least in terms of exercise, Muzak (and LCD Soundsystem’s recent Nike mix) aren’t bullshitting after all.

Of course, exercise is the very definition of a repetitive, mind-numbing activity, and as much as we like to compare the daily grind at work to the mindless activity of a hamster on a treadmill, the cognitive demands required by some jobs are more substantial. To be applicable to an office environment, music would have to have effects on tasks that require concentration or problem-solving; you know, those qualities that coffee bestows. Unfortunately, most of the controlled tasks you find in laboratory studies are of the dull, menial computer-game type, but some of these have shown higher performance in the presence of music, such as a visual search task, which is sort of like a crossword puzzle with numbers. Of course, listening to music also lights up a whole bunch of brain areas, some of which are loosely associated with processes like memory and attention that would presumably be crucial to copy-editing or selling life insurance, whatever one’s occupation may call for.

On the other hand, just as many studies have found that music may be a distraction in the workplace, to which anyone who works in an area where every single person has their own set of computer speakers can attest. One particular study tested an aspect of the Mozart Effect (the finding that listening to Mozart before an IQ test can increase scores) in monkeys, which offered the advantage of test subjects with, presumably, no opinion on Mozart. Monkeys that were given a delayed-response task requiring the use of short-term working memory to complete performed worse when Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C was played during testing, in comparison to silence or white noise. Thus, either monkeys are too hip for classical music, or the effect of music is not as clear cut as Muzak would have us believe: it may be a distraction when the music in question is unfamiliar, or it may depend on more than mere direct physiological effects.

One obstacle to making any kind of judgment on the method’s efficacy lies with the corporation’s own unwillingness to pass its supposed extensive research through any peer-review filters. However, this secrecy is not really surprising in light of their free-market goals; the Stimulus Progression program didn’t really have to work, it just had to be plausible enough to sell to customers. Yet like a lot of pseudoscience, the concept may have contained just enough grounding in real science to maintain a glimmer of promise, however tainted by its for-profit origins. It’s not hard to imagine that the faux-academic babble on my record sleeve could actually be hiding a psycho-physiological nugget that someday could be a useful (if a bit Orwellian) tool for the work environment, a non-intrusive audio-based occupational enhancer. Should anyone pick up the mantle of Stimulus Progression and implement the program to its full potential, both in study and practice, hopefully they’ll acknowledge Muzak in its proper role: godfather of industrial music.

NEXT MONTH: Muzak no longer worries about maximizing the efficiency of lowly worker bees, they now want to make you spend money and make you cry when Old Yeller gets shot. See how Muzak is commercializing long-suspected and recently-discovered ways that music can affect human emotion, here on your friendly neighborhood Stereolab.


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Crust L, Clough PJ, Robertson C. 2004. Influence of music and distraction on visual search performance of participants with high and low affect intensity. Percept Mot Skills 98(3 Pt. 1): 888-96.

Edworthy J, Waring H. 2006. The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise. Ergonomics 49(15): 1597-610.

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Janata P, Tillmann B, Bharucha JJ. 2002. Listening to polyphonic music recruits domain-general attention and working memory circuits. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 2(2): 121-40.

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Newman RI Jr, Hunt DL, Rhodes F. 1966. Effects of music on employee attitude and productivity in a skateboard factory. J Appl Psychol 50(6): 493-6.

Rauscher FH, Shaw GL, Ky KN. 1995. Listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: towards a neurophysiological basis. Neurosci Lett 185(1): 44-7.

Szabo A, Small A, Leigh M. 1999. The effects of slow- and fast-rhythm classical music on progressive cycling to voluntary physical exhaustion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 39(3): 220-5.


Waterfalls of text are produced every day about music’s aesthetic properties, but rarely is this ancient form of human communication addressed on a scientific level. Stereolab’s purpose is to investigate the places where music and science intersect, profiling research into clinical applications of the art form, explaining what we’ve found about its effects upon mind and body, and talking to musicians with science backgrounds and vice versa. Please: no Thomas Dolby references.

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