The Science of Muzak
Can background music really influence our buying decisions?
by Brian Dunning
July 9, 2013
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Also available in Russian
Whether we're pushing our shopping cart through a retail store or sitting at an office desk laboring for a salary, somebody up there wants us to work harder, spend more money, and be a more productive cylinder in the engine of commerce. Might there be a simple way to get people to be more energetic, more creative, more generous; simply by manipulating their environment through something as simple as music? It has certainly been tried, and sold to the world's largest businesses. Commonly called by the name of its most recognizable vendor, muzak has long been the subject of scrutiny, science, and pseudoscience. Today we're going to see what it can do and what it can't.
There's no secret or surprise that music has been used to enhance moods ever since the first cavemen hit rocks with sticks. The drums of war can intensify aggression; a devotional chant soothes and induces reverence. We listen to music to relax, we listen to music to step up our workout. This has been well accepted since before recorded history, and there was never any specific invention needed to teach us that music can change our mood or influence our actions. The elevators of early skyscrapers were filled with calming music to ease the anxiety of passengers, and so the term "elevator music" has always been around. Such music is called functional music, the purpose of which is utilitarian rather than entertainment. With functional music so widely accepted and available, why would anyone bother to purchase muzak? The answer lay in scientific analysis of its benefit.
The history begins with George Owen Squier, who, as a U.S. Army major general in the Signal Corps, already had significant inventions and patents in his name. In 1910 he invented multiplexing, a technique to allow a single wire to carry multiple signals, greatly enhancing the capabilities of telephony. In 1922 he sold a patent for transmitting music over power lines, and founded a company he called Wired Radio. In 1934 Wired Radio introduced the product that was to become synonymous with background music: Muzak, a name Squier formed by combining the words "music" and "Kodak", one of the world's best-recognized consumer product brand names of the day.
Although nearly everyone associates the company Muzak with elevator music, this has never been one of their offerings. Muzak was initially offered to consumers via a proprietary amplifier that used Squier's patents, but quickly lost in the market to free broadcast radio. So the company changed its direction providing music for hotels and restaurants, venues that preferred not to subject their customers to the advertisements that saturated broadcast radio. By 1936, Muzak's marketing executives were touting their claim that background music increased productivity, improved worker morale, and reduced absenteeism.
It soon became clear that this was not always the case, when workers began clapping their hands to certain songs or singing along; and one Muzak executive observed that "Once people start listening they stop working." Clearly, science was needed if background music was to become a proven workplace tool. Muzak invested heavily in research, and put the development of its programming into the hands of a specialized engineering team they called audio architects. One of the team's early innovations in the 1940s was something they termed Stimulus Progression, developed as part of the war effort for factory workers. Music would gradually increase in volume, tempo, and brilliance over a 15-minute period, then go silent for 15 minutes, and repeat similar sequences. The idea was for workers to unconciously become increasingly energetic and productive. By eliminating or minimizing vocals, and creating new recordings of music using carefully chosen instrumentation, Muzak was able to create music that didn't grab your attention; ideally, you wouldn't even notice it at all.
The concept became somewhat infamous, with many critics referring to it as attempted brainwashing or mind control; which is, arguably, a fair assessment. But was it science or pseudoscience? The Muzak company claimed a 9.1% boost in productivity, based on independent studies that they commissioned themselves. When testing the results of their programming at Lever Brothers in 1958, they found that typists produced 38.6% fewer errors when Muzak was being played. The military even got directly involved. Research conducted at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1968 found that reaction times and vigilance both improved using Stimulus Progression. Using the progression in reverse order, in which the music became progressively slower and quieter, had the reverse effect. Although much modern reporting of Muzak dismisses Stimulus Progression as pseudoscience, precious little research seems to have found it to be any less effective than as advertised.
However, the idea of altering mood and energy levels has long ago dropped out of the repertoire of companies producing muzak. For the last several decades, the focus has instead been on creating and maintaining a certain mood or flavor in retail environments. The most prominent example of this is quite simple: keep your shoppers relaxed, and they'll shop more slowly, and hang around longer to buy more stuff. George Squier recognized this in the 1930s, and it remains a mainstay of the muzak industry today.
In 1982 the Journal of Marketing published a study of sales at one supermarket over a nine week period. On each day, one of three types of music was played: fast tempo, slow tempo, or no music at all. In this particular study, sales increased 38.2% on slow-tempo days compared to fast-tempo days. When shoppers were asked as they left the store whether they recalled the music, few did, and there was no significant difference between the three groups. 38.2% is a very high number, higher than most estimates, which range 10-20%. But even that number is massive, considering the gross sales of some of the world's largest supermarket chains.
In pursuit of the strategy to keep shoppers in stores, Muzak turned its attention to what it called Quantum Modulation, a name which reeks of Word Salad — sciencey-sounding words meaninglessly thrown together to sound impressive. Under this system, which remains today the primary philosophy of companies that produce muzak, original music recordings are scored in as many as 45 different categories; things like dark or light, tempo, dynamic range, happy or sad, male or female, instrumentation, genre, period, geography, etc. etc. With music thus scored, audio architects have a huge database at their disposal to facilitate matching songs in order to create playlists for virtually any environment. If you have an antique store, there's muzak channel to match its flavor. Is your clothing store urban, traditional, formal, youthful? There's a muzak channel for that. The idea is not about mind control or behavior modification; it's simply about enhancing the shopper's experience by reinforcing the theme. Go into a toy store and you're likely to hear different muzak than you would in an old-world leather & globe furniture store.
But we mustn't merely say "That makes sense," but we should actually see if it does fulfill the goal of increasing business. That's a pretty hard task; as Dr. James Keenan, who was the head of Muzak's research division for a long time and was in charge of much of the company's internal research, pointed out that up to 80% of customers who go into a store have an active aversion to being directly "sold" to. Could properly curated background music sell to the customers without their noticing?
We can be pretty certain that music does influence perception of the products. Dr. Adrian North has done a number of studies demonstrating this. One that's often cited had to do with the sales of German and French wines in a supermarket. On different days, the placement of the French and German wine displays were swapped to control for the variable of more desirable placement. But no matter where they were, French wine significantly outsold German wine when the supermarket played French music, and German wine was the winner when German music was played. Post-sale interviews indicated that very few customers had been aware that the music may have influenced their buying choice.
In another study, consumers who were not regular of customers of either of two given brands of gasoline were shown ads for each featuring music that was either properly themed for the product or not. As researchers expected to find, the customers clearly tended to prefer brands that were presented with appropriate music.
But does properly-themed music affect the consumer's spending? Although research is limited, the answer so far appears to be a solid yes. In one 2003 study conducted at a British restaurant, classical music was played for customers on some nights, while no music and pop music were tried on others. The test was properly randomized to control for other variables, and a number of metrics were recorded for each customer, including what they spent money on, how long they remained, and what their total spend was. The results were clear that when thematically appropriate classical music was played, customers not only spent more money, but indicated that they felt willing to spend more money.
In 1915, Thomas Edison played phonograph records for his engineers after observing that they tended to have an improved ability to come up with solutions to problems when listening to music. In 1910, a typing instructor played up-tempo music recordings in an effort to improve student typing speeds. At the time it may have seemed more anecdote than science, but as the decades progressed, Muzak codified the idea into a well-founded product. The Muzak company itself has gone through a number of acquisitions and even a bankruptcy, and today it's only one listing in the product catalog of Mood Media, alongside its former competitor DMX. The word muzak has even gone the way of Kleenex and Xerox, becoming a colloquial term more recognized than the company name. This is one way that society immortalizes its pop-culture successes. Author and muzak historian Joseph Lanza may have put it best when he wrote "Elevator music (besides just being good music) is essentially a distillation of the happiness that modern technology has promised. A world without elevator music would be much grimmer than its detractors (and those who take it for granted) could ever realize."
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Science of Muzak." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
9 Jul 2013. Web.
27 May 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4370>
References & Further Reading
Blecha, P. "Muzak, Inc. -- Originators of "Elevator Music"." HistoryLink.org. History Link, 6 Apr. 2012. Web. 5 Jul. 2013. <http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10072>
Lanza, J. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
North, A., Hargreaves, D. The Social and Applied Psychology of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
North, A., Hargreaves, D., McKendrick, J. "In-store music affects product choice." Nature. 13 Nov. 1997, Number 390: 132.
North, A., Shilcock, A., Hargreaves, D. "The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Customers' Spending." Environment and Behavior. 1 Sep. 2003, Volume 35, Number 5: 712-718.
Owen, D. "The Soundtrack of Your Life." Annals of Culture. The New Yorker, 10 Apr. 2006. Web. 5 Jul. 2013. <http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/04/10/060410fa_fact?currentPage=all>
Sterne, J. "Sounds like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space." Ethnomusicology. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 41, Number 1: 22-50.
Yelanjian, M. "Rhythms of Consumption." Cultural Studies. 20 Aug. 2006, Volume 5, Issue 1: 91-97.
Yeoh, J., North, A. "The effect of musical fit on consumers' preferences between competing alternate petrols." Psychology of Music. 1 Jan. 2012, Volume 40, Number 6: 709-719.
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