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Muzak History: The Background Story on Background Music

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When you hear the name Muzak, you probably think of the type of easy listening music one often encounters in elevators or while on hold at a call center. Where does the term Muzak come from, and where does the actual music originate? And why don’t we hear elevator music as much as we used to? Let’s take a look at a brief history of the smooth programming.

For a company whose name is synonymous with wimpy music, Muzak had a surprisingly tough founder: an Army general. Major General George O. Squier served as the Army’s Chief Signal Officer during World War I, and in the early 1920s he perfected a method for transmitting music across electrical wires. At the time, radio was still finding its footing, so the notion of sending businesses and residences music via wires was appealing. In 1934 Squier formally founded a company to develop his invention. Since he liked the sound of the name “Kodak” he borrowed from it to name his own company Muzak.

Unfortunately for Muzak, by the time Squier’s technology was ready for a full-scale implementation, radio had become firmly entrenched. Undeterred, Muzak went after a different market—the one for background music for stores, restaurants, and office buildings.

In those early days, Muzak didn’t have access to the huge libraries of licensed music that radio stations can pick from today, so the company brought in top bands and orchestras to record original selections and standards that could be piped into businesses. Thanks to this strategy, the company ended up with some pretty amazing archives. According to Muzak, the company owns some of the few surviving original recordings of jazz legend Casper Reardon, better known as “the World’s Hottest Harpist.”

Muzak to their ears

This early background music did fairly well for Muzak, but the company really started taking off in the 1940s. As World War II required more and more industrial production, company researchers made a surprising discovery: Muzak could apparently make workers happier and more productive. Muzak patented a system called Stimulus Progression that offered 15-minute blocks of instrumental background music that provided listeners with a subconscious sense of forward movement. When workers listened to these blocks, they got more work done.

In retrospect, the science behind these Stimulus Progression studies may have been a bit dubious, but it really helped Muzak franchise and sell subscriptions to businesses. Not even the White House was immune to the allure of Muzak’s agreeable tunes; the presidential residence was wired for Muzak in 1953 during Dwight Eisenhower's administration. (He wasn’t the biggest presidential fan, though; Lyndon Johnson actually owned Muzak’s Austin franchise during the 1950s.) Soon Muzak’s tunes were hitting tens of millions of ears each day.

Muzak Trivia

Muzak is still around today, but as elevator music’s popularity has waned, the company has shifted its focus. Although it still offers the “classic” elevator music to the few customers who want it, most of Muzak’s programming now comes from its library of millions of commercially recorded songs. Muzak’s “audio architects” design special programs of tunes to fit specific clients’ needs, whether it’s helping workers be more productive or inducing shoppers to splurge on that new pair of pants.

In addition to Muzak’s ability to tailor programs to a business’ specific needs, it also deals with the thorny issue of paying licensing fees on the songs a business plays. If a shop or restaurant just plugged in an iPod and let the tunes fly, it would need to pay licensing fees to the copyright holders for each song it played. While some businesses do just that, Muzak’s current services include all of the necessary performance royalties, a perk that the company uses as a selling point.

Related Question: Why is it called “elevator music” in the first place?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early 20th century. As skyscrapers began popping up in urban areas around the world, the necessity of elevators shot up. As the story goes, early skyscraper denizens weren’t totally sold on this idea of getting into a tiny box and being pulled up a very tall shaft. To help calm riders’ nerves about getting into elevators, building owners would pipe in soothingly bland music, and soon “elevator music” became shorthand for any boring, non-threatening instrumental music.

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science
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.

1. SHE WAS BORN TO, AND FOR, GREATNESS.

A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.

2. HER PARENTS' MARRIAGE WAS A MODEL FOR HER OWN.

Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

3. SHE AND HER HUSBAND WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE PAIR.

Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

4. THEY FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE.

The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.

5. SHE WAS NOT CONTENT WITH THE STATUS QUO.

Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.

6. SHE WORKED HERSELF TO DEATH.

Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like Delivery.com or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with Delivery.com or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]

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