Lost Music | The Unconventional Sounds of Utility

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine asked me to write a piece of original incidental music for a film he’s making. The scene takes place in the lobby of a corny hotel and he needed a piece of suitably corny background music. We talked a little about it, but we didn’t need to say much because it was obvious. Everyone knows what kind of music plays in corny hotel lobbies: Muzak.

Muzak, though a trademarked brand, has become synonymous with what is derisively called “elevator music”. Muzak is actually a company founded in the 1920’s that provided background music to subscribers through direct electrical lines as opposed to radio (hence the term “piped music”). Despite later ubiquity in shopping malls and department stores, the earliest markets weren’t public retail venues, they were workplaces trying to improve productivity. The company did research to improve the effectiveness of music to this end and eventually started producing their own music. Early on Muzak was even recorded by popular orchestras and big bands of the day.

The style of music they produced was an early version of what came to be called “Beautiful Music”, a now extinct radio format from the 50’s and 60’s that splintered off and begat “Easy Listening” and then the insipid “Light Adult Contemporary” radio format (which is becoming less common itself). Beautiful Music was music that could be played in the background without distraction, creating a pleasant, soothing aural environment, like wall paper for the ears.

Anyone born before, say, 1980 is instantly familiar with this style of music. Instrumental, light strings, little percussion, organs, mallet instruments, orchestral arrangements, pop melodies and endless repetition. But today there’s almost nowhere you can hear this music. There are quite a few examples of Beautiful Music that were recorded and sold on LP: Mantovani, Percy Faith, and Henry Mancini for instance, but I imagine the vast majority of Beautiful Music/Easy Listening/Muzak has disappeared and will never be heard again, lost once and for all to our cultural memory. No one is producing this style of music today. It wasn’t composed or recorded to be sold to music fans and because of this, as far as I can tell, there are very few documents archiving it.

I’m fascinated by this sort of commercial music. Like any music, it has a history, star composers, and an evolution of style. But unlike most music it has virtually no fans. Many small musical subgenres have been recorded, analyzed, historically documented, and passed down through generations and musical evolution. In some cases the appeal of the music broadens with time. This music is different. Despite having immense, widespread audiences, it seems the only people who think about this music are the people who work in the industry that produces it. Instead of a devoted small core, this music has a completely oblivious broad audience. It has no crossover or hybridization, and doesn’t directly influence music that people actually listen to on purpose.

Soft music isn’t the only genre that suffers from this. The traditional music of serialized daytime soap operas has an interesting history too. The familiar motif of dramatic organ riffs sounded the way it did for a reason: originally the organ was used because it was less expensive and easy to produce for live radio and television. The melodies were written and performed to reinforce dramatic tension, particularly right before commercial breaks, and to signal the beginning and return to the program after commercial breaks. Organ music was replaced by orchestral arrangements in the 70’s because they could be easily recorded and reused. Orchestral recordings in turn were supplanted in the 80’s by the then new, cutting edge, synthesizers because of their flexibility. This early synthesizer music was groundbreaking at the time, but is now lost.

Classic game show music is a distinct and interesting form of utility music. Think about the themes to 1970’s era game shows with their uptempo brass arrangements. Unlike Beautiful Music’s soothing sounds or soap opera soundtracks’ sentimentality and melodrama these themes were intended to excite the listener, coming at you in short energetic bursts. There are still a few examples of this kind of music being used today (The Price is Right for instance) but for the most part its gone, unrecorded and unavailable.

Radio and TV news music is another idiom that has a long musical tradition. News Music is an entire industry with a number of production houses dedicated to writing and producing lead ins and themes. They even have awards (they’re called the Emmy’s). You can sample dozens of samples here: http://www.southernmedia-nmsa.com/ Its impossible to imagine the news without music, from the various arrangements of NPR’s “All Things Considered” (available hereto “The Situation Room” to the local news you watched with your parents as a kid. But if you’ve never heard News Music from the 60’s where could you hear it today?

Unlike pop, rock, jazz, classical, r&b, folk, or country its difficult to trace the musical lineage of any of these styles. As the original musicians composers and producers pass away I wonder if the unrecorded history of these styles of music will be lost forever. It would be a shame. Much of this music has cultural merit belied by its utility. The potential power of this music is great. I imagine there are a range of musical styles waiting to be revived in new contexts. Familiar to the ear yet distinct, unconventional, and uncommon, in the hands of a clever producer the recontextualization of these styles could be powerful, like eating a long lost favorite food from your childhood. I’d love to hear a Daft Punk interpretation of game show music or an A-Trak or Santogold song that sampled a classic horn bit from a news theme using the beeping sound of the incoming wire in the beat. Antony and the Johnsons could make an incredible “Beautiful Music” album. Any takers can thank me in the liner notes.