A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong

By Joseph Lanza

University of Michigan. 1994, 2004 reissue. $18.95.

An instrumental version of "Have You Never Been Mellow" -- does it get any more mellow than that? Or perhaps you need some pep in your step. The theme from "Flashdance" should do the trick. Kill the vocals, heavy on the strings . . . "what a feeling," indeed.

Such are the strange fruits of the easy-listening orchestral format that once dominated the field of piped-in background music -- pioneered by the Muzak corporation -- filling countless elevators, bank lobbies, shopping malls and the like. Many people dismiss such music as the height of banality, but I'm fascinated by it -- sometimes by its sheer perversity, sometimes by its melodic simplicity -- and I was thrilled to see Joseph Lanza turn his attention to the subject in his 1994 book "Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong" (University of Michigan, 2004 reissue, $18.95 paperback).

Lanza touches on an array of topics under the easy-listening umbrella -- including the rise of mood music in popular recordings of the 1950s, the Beautiful Music radio format and the emergence of the New Age genre. But he never strays far from the unifying theme of Muzak, tracing the company's evolution from the 1930s over decades of renown, and often notoriety, for its pop instrumentals and the psychology behind them: a "stimulus progression" method of selecting songs by tempo throughout the day to offset fatigue. Lanza also describes Muzak's branching out in the '80s and '90s to other genres (complete with -- gasp! -- vocals) and a foreground music approach for retailers seeking specific musical styles to enhance their brand image.

But old-school pop instrumentals aren't out of the picture yet. Muzak still has a program called "Environmental" devoted to the genre. And the Beautiful Music radio format -- all but dead in recent years -- has found new life on an XM Satellite Radio station known as "Sunny."

That's what I listened to, in fact, while revisiting "Elevator Music" a decade after my first reading. It's still a surreal world, after all, and Lanza's neat tome is a great way to reflect on some of the aural factors that make it so.

-- Jonathan Padget,

Arts Beat columnist