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Music as Media 9: Muzak

Music as Media 9: Muzak

Author: Amee Wittbrodt
  • Understand, analyze, evaluate, and use different types of print, digital, and multimodal media.
  • Critically analyze information found in electronic, print, and mass media and use a variety of these sources.
  • Gain an understanding of Muzak and "audio architecture."
  • Consider the overall purpose of Muzak and the effect it has on customer.
  • Decide whether or not the popular culture industry wants to make us happy or unhappy.

This packet is 9th in a series about music as media.

Do you ever feel unhappy or unsatisifed with your life after watching TV or viewing a blockbuster movie? That's no accident. Critics of the popular culture industry argue that they purposely make us feel bad to spend more on self improvement products. Ever wonder why you hear music in stores and restaurants? That's no accident either. This packet will explore answers to these questions and give you plenty more questions to ponder.

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Background Information

Happy or Unhappy?

The popular culture industry includes recording companies, books and magazine publishers, movie studios, and television and radio broadcasters. All of these companies make money by entertaining us. We find entertainment fun, relaxing, and enjoyable. Therefore, we are more than happy to watch television and movies, listen to music on the radio or stereo, and read books and magazines. But consider this: Some people argue that the popular culture industry knows how to make us unhappy, too. The industry wants us to believe that school and work are boring and no fun. It wants us to be unhappy with how we relate to other people, unhappy about our appearance, unhappy with much of life in general.

Why? Because the more unhappy we are with things, the more we want to change things, and the more willing we are to buy new things. Broadcasters and magazine publishers make money by selling advertising. Advertisers tell us that we have problems and that we should be unhappy because of those problems. We are not attractive enough, we have body odor, and other people do not like us. However, if we buy their cologne, their clothes, their cars, their cosmetics, and so, we will be happier.

In addition, the unhappier we are, the more we want to escape. Movie studios want us to buy movie tickets and rent or buy DVDs. This way, we can escape from our problems, and escape from the boredom of school and work. So, rarely will movies or television shows make school look interesting or fun. Instead, the teachers are often made to look like geeks; the things we have to study are portrayed as useless. Most jobs are shown as dumb, except for the jobs of police officers, lawyers, and doctors. But these jobs are rarely shown realistically, relying instead on exciting but highly unusual or unlikely situations.


Muzak Makes me Happy!

MUZAK is a company that began in the 1930s. Its founder realized that people in a variety of public places found instrumental music soothing and began to produce such music for businesses. Muzak is often called “elevator music” because its mild instrumental versions of popular songs are often played in elevators. Over 250,000 businesses pay Muzak to use its recordings and equipment in office buildings, stores, and other public places. It is also common to hear Muzak played when businesses put telephone callers on hold. Although associated with instrumental “background” music, the company now distributes “foreground” music with vocals, which can be heard in stores, restaurants, and other public places. In all, Muzak delivers more than a dozen styles of music to its customers.

Muzak describes itself as being in the business of “audio architecture.” Think about it—there is more to a building than just the colors of the walls, the type of flooring, and the furniture inside. Bakeries and candle shops lure shoppers with pleasant smells. Restaurants and boutiques use certain colors and materials in their interior design to create a mood for diners or shoppers. Music also helps set the mood, whether for working in an office or shopping in a store.

Most recently, Muzak has expanded to become a "mood media company" that specializes in multi-sensory branding including aroma marketing. Not only will you hear stimulating music that is meant to make you buy more, but your senses will pick up on sweet smells that are meant to increase the time you spend in the store and the amount of money you spend. How crazy is that? 

Learn more at


Source: Media Literacy: Thinking Critically About Music & Media

Brief History of Muzak

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the argument that the popular culture industry wants to make us unhappy? Explain.

  2. According to the argument, why does the popular culture industry want to make us unhappy? Explain.

  3. According to the article, which jobs on TV are rarely shown realistically, relying instead on exciting but highly unnlikely or unusual situations?

  4. How does music help people escape? Does music help you escape? If yes, what does it help you escape from? Explain.

  5. Pretend that you have a pizza restaurant that wants to attract families and young adults. Your restaurant has identified its key demographic as people between the ages of 18 and 45 and their children. Do you think using recorded music in your restaurant would increase your business? Why or why not?

  6. Many people are not even aware that background music is being played when they are in a store or restaurant. Why, then, do you think that store or restaurant owners are willing to pay for that background music? Explain.

  7. Think about riding in an elevator. What purpose does music serve in an elevator? Explain.

  8. Why do you think people who own offices and other businesses pay to have background music played during the workday? Explain.