Think “elevator music,” and what surely comes to mind is the sonic equivalent of wallpaper, a bland, inoffensive musical background meant to pleasantly ignored while we go about our daily business. In his book “Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong,” however, author Joseph Lanza hums a different tune, one that comes to feel much more aggressive than the soothing tones let on.
“For decades, these companies were churning out different kinds of background music for commercial clients to use,” says artist and radio producer Yowei Shaw. “There have been a lot of scientific studies that show the power of background music to influence and manipulate human behavior. In supermarkets and department stores, they found that if you played slower tempo Muzak you could encourage customers to linger longer in the aisles and buy more things. You could reduce stress and fatigue and boost worker productivity and morale by something called stimulus progressions, where you have fifteen-minute blocks of Muzak that increase in tempo and complexity and then loop it. That struck me as kind of sinister.”
With her new pop-up audio installation “Really Good Elevator Music,” developed while she was an artist-in-residence at Asian Arts Initiative, Shaw decided to turn those subliminally insidious powers to positive ends. “It gave me this idea: why don’t we make our own elevator music in the same utilitarian way but for pro-social reasons? We can play it on elevators and in other public/private spaces where people would normally hear background music, but designed with an explicitly positive goal like promoting community in mind. Not music for music’s sake but music as a tool to be effective.”