Inside the booming business of background music - Once derided, the successors to muzak have grown more...

Inside the booming business of background music - Once derided, the successors to muzak have grown more sophisticated – and influential – than any of us realise

Music, even when you are barely aware of it, can be surprisingly powerful. Over recent decades, researchers have found that it can affect how much time we think has passed while waiting in a queue, how co-operative shoppers are with sales staff, and even how sweet or bitter food tastes. One study found that shoppers’ preference for French or German wine shifted according to which of the respective countries’ traditional music was playing from a nearby set of speakers.

The background music industry – also known as music design, music consultancy or something offered as part of a broader package of “experiential design” or “sensory marketing” – is constantly deciding what we hear as we go about our everyday business. The biggest player in the industry, Mood Media, was founded in 2004 and now supplies music to 560,000 locations across the world, from Sainsbury’s to KFC.

In its early days, Muzak sold itself on the basis that it could make workplaces more productive. Its programme for offices and factories was structured around “Stimulus Progression”, a system invented in the 1940s, where instrumental classical recordings were played in 15-minute sequences, alternated with silence, the music gradually increasing in intensity. In 1956, a report commissioned by Muzak claimed, somewhat implausibly, that its programme had produced an 18.6% increase in production and a 37% decrease in the number of errors made by office employees at the Mississippi Power & Light Company, whose job was to enter meter readings into the company’s billing system.

There are two main ways psychologists think about the effects that music can have on us. The first is physical. Numerous studies have confirmed our common sense assumption that we often subconsciously match what we are doing to what we hear. In 1985, for instance, one study found that diners chewed at a faster pace when higher-tempo music was played. (Researchers measured this according to the delightfully named metric, bites-per-minute.) Interestingly, they noted, diners did not finish their meals faster, suggesting that they had actually been taking smaller bites.

The second approach focuses on the associations that music can trigger and how context, such as the environment we are in, affects those associations. One 1998 study found that diners in a cafeteria were willing to spend more money when classical music was played in the background than when there was no music at all. One explanation, researchers suggested, was that diners associated classical music with quality. (In an indictment of the changed fortunes of easy listening music, it elicited a worse response from diners than silence.) Researchers also use the related concept of “musical fit” to understand why people respond to particular music differently depending on the setting.

And it is not all roses and sunshine for background music... there is also a group called Pipedown who have campaigned “for freedom from unwanted music in public places” since 1992, when its founder, Nigel Rodgers, was spurred to action by a particularly irritating experience in a South Kensington restaurant.

A much longer story about backgroud music at


Inside the booming business of background music | News | The Guardian

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