Dec 02 2011
Muzak, also known as Elevator Music, has always been a great joke. Hearing a Steely Dan tune like “Do It Again” while leafing through a six-month old issue of Field & Stream at the dentist is its own special circle of hell, especially when the mind starts getting infected and singing along silently to the bowdlerized tune (“Back, Jack, Do it Again ….”). And many a great movie has used elevator music to great comic effect. My favorite being Dawn of the Dead (yes, it’s Zombie week at Churbuck.com).
Muzak, at least the true commercial version, is supposed to have a specific effect on the listener. According to the Wikipedia:
“Elevator music is typically set to a very simple melody, so that it can be unobtrusively looped back to the beginning. In a mall or shopping center, elevator music of a specific type has been found to have a psychological effect: slower, more relaxed music tends to make people slow down and browse longer.”
Which brings me to my constant musing about the effect that background music has on certain behaviors. I’ve written in the past* about the way that certain music can improve my ergometer results while other songs effectively kill it. This isn’t your usual athletic lockeroom get-psyched cliche music. I’m not referring to Eye of the Tiger or House of Pain’s Jump Around. That Rocky soundtrack stuff isn’t what gets my 500 meter splits down an additional two seconds. Indeed, there is some academic research that confirms that some music can improve aerobic results but I’m too lazy at the moment to hunt it down.
When I tended bar it was a given that loud music drove alcohol consumption higher. At some point in the evening the manager would always step in back, find the big volume control, and crank it when the joint was good and buzzed. Of course the din made it impossible to hear some desperate dipsomaniac shout an order over the heads of her fellow patrons for a pina colada, a peach daiquiri and a sloe gin fizz shortly after midnight on a Saturday night when the only thing that would keep the bar out of the weeds was sloshing wine into glasses and pulling drafts out of the taps. “What?! What?!” we’d shout, handing over a napkin and a pencil with a shrug and the implied suggestion to write it down. Obviously loud music made it difficult to conduct a conversation and all that shouting of “WHAT?” led to a subtle anxiety that could only be slaked by another drink and another drink after that.
Silent restaurants are spooky. I suppose a low volume soundtrack gives one the illusion of being in a sound bubble where one’s conversation can’t be overheard by the next table.
When I was writing unpublished novels and short stories in great earnest during college, I found I could only enter that special creative zone if there was music playing. Loud music. Something about writing to rock and roll got me into a typing groove. I can read fiction with soft music in the background — jazz, etc. — but can’t concentrate on academic level stuff if there are lyrics involved — the word absorption gets mixed up.
My big revelation, and this goes to the post’s headline, is my re-discovery of the Ambient genre and how perfectly it suits a day of concentration. In the mid-70s, when I was a college student, I had two roommates with very eccentric tastes in avant garde music. I’m talking stuff by Morton Subotnick, Sun Ra, Stomu Yamashta and most memorably, Brian Eno, in particular his Ambient 1: Music for Airports. For some reason, ambient is way back on my personal playlist these days.
I think of Eno as the father of ambient music — he’s a genius at elevating background noise from elevators and waiting rooms to high art. Another godfather of ambient has to be Vangelis, particularly his soundtrack for Blade Runner:
So, it’s strange as I age that my taste is music is not the chestnuts from my youth; one more rendition of Freebird or Green Grass and High Tides Forever and I’ll lose it. What’s surprising me is how my tastes have swung to utterly obscure musicians I would never have encountered were it not for the random intelligence behind Last.fm. So, with that said, here’s some names that deserve to be checked out. This is great music to plug into in the background when you’ve got other things to do.
- Aphex Twin
- Eskmo ( a favorite video)
- Boards of Canada (note the YouTube comment, “The Ultimate Homework-Doing Music”)
- Carbon Based Lifeforms
- Robot Koch
*: My erg playlist, from 2006 pretty much is holding firm. Suggestions always welcome as “erg playlist” seems to be a top search term driving people to this blog.
- Scum of the Earth: Rob Zombie
- Who Was in My Room Last Night: The Butthole Surfers
- Jesus Built my Hot Rod: Ministry
- Ain’t my Bitch: Metallica
- Rusty Cage: Soundgarden
- Sex Type Thing: Stone Temple Pilots
- New World Order: Ministry
- Hey Man, Nice Shot: Filter
- My Own Summer – Deftones
- Astro-Creep: White Zombie
- Them Bones: Alice in Chains
- Time Bomb: Godsmack
- Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards: Scissorfight
- Du Hast: Rammstein
- God Save the Queen: Sex Pistols
- You Think I’m Not Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire, Queens of the New Stone Age
- Jump Around: House of Pain
- Liberate: Slipknot
- She Sells Sanctuary: The Cult
- California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys