BOOKS: ELEVATOR MUSIC: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Moodsong by Joseph Lanza, Quartet £10 If muzak be the food of love

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The Independent Culture
A MUSICIAN of my acquaintance - a percussionist who tackles anything from symphony to rock - once found himself tapping his feet happily in a Tokyo lift. Its loudspeaker was playing one of his tracks and he knew that by the time he reached the right floor his royalty statements would have clocked up a few more yen. Apart from him, I would be hard pushed to think of anyone who had ever welcomed the sound of Muzak that slithers unbidden from loudspeakers in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, stores and, sometimes, lavatories. No one says, "You must go to the reception area at United MegaStuff - they've got some great Mantovani on an endless tape!" So Joseph Lanza deserves credit for stamina in researching Elevator Music. He must have been in a lot of lifts. He must have eardrums of steel.

His basic thesis is, like the music he writes about, a lot of wishy-washy nonsense. Muzak for him is "post-industrial life's most authentic art form". He declares that it is "more than music" and dismisses criticism of it as "cultural prejudice".

Yet although he writes about junk music, this is not in any sense a junk book. The "surreal history" he sketches out is far more fascinating than, say, the sleeve notes of A Romantic Mood of Dining and Dreaming by 101 Strings, Hugo Winterhalter Goes Gypsy or any other album of instrumental porridge.

Lanza traces "functional music" back to Orpheus, whose lyre kept Jason and the Argonauts pulling away rhythmically at their oars. More controversially, he describes the Gregorian plainsong of monks as "medieval Muzak performed to uplift agricultural workers". Florence Nightingale judged that her patients perked up at "Home Sweet Home" on the barrel organ.

It was the combination of industrialisation and electrical sound reproduction that pushed background music into the foreground. In Russia they celebrated the din of factories with compositions like Concert for Factory Sirens. In the West, they used lightmusic to drown the heavy industry. The man who deserves the credit, or blame, is Brigadier General George Owen Squier, born in Michigan in 1865: "the inventor of Muzak and the unsung hero of the electronic age".

Squier's military work included the invention of the high-speed telegraph, which he used to detonate mines. In civvy street, he turned to the idea of music as a form of crowd-control and began piping happy sounds into offices and businesses. He called it"Wired Radio" until, juggling the words "music" and "Kodak", he dreamed up the dreaded "Muzak".

The sound derives largely from the radio: the high-pitched, overlapping strings were used to counteract the buzzing static of the early broadcasts. The static may actually have been more interesting, but light music delivered the goods to advertisers. Poured into stores, Muzak was supposed to create happy shoppers; after all, cows were reported to give more milk when listening to the "Blue Danube". In lifts, it soothed the nerves of office workers: the music went up and down safely, so there was no needto worry if the floor did too. Even when a bomber flew into the Empire State Building, the poor souls trapped on the 88th storey were lulled by the canned waltz which continued to drone through the flames and fumes.

As early as 1936 the Muzak moguls laid down careful guidelines. Brisk tunes between 7 and 9am encouraged customers in cafes to eat the fast food fast. No vibraphones were to be heard until 5pm and no vocals between 9pm and 12.30am. After midnight it was time for "slumber music", ie no tangos. And so on, through the 24 mellow hours.

Lanza claims this personal soundtrack lets us turn our lives into movies. But it seems to me that any scene with Ray Conniff Plays the Carpenters in the background has to come from a pretty tedious film. Anyway, if you must have the Carpenters, why not buy the real Carpenters? Ditto, in spades, The Beatles, Stones and Doors, all of whom have been emasculated into tinkling "moodsong".

In welcoming the spread of "Esperanto" music (widely comprehended but no one's first language), Lanza is eager to link it with the etherial sounds of the new "ambient" music. But when Brian Eno's Music for Airports was once actually played over airport loudspeakers, people waiting for their flights complained it made them feel uneasy. That's the trouble with the real thing.