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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 17:04 GMT
Muzak, sweet music

Can we live without the sound of muzak?
There are few things as reliable as muzak.

In the midst of the most hectic Saturday afternoon shop it is there, calm and mellow. When a lift conversation with the boss comes to a grinding halt, it wafts serenely into the breach.

But its ubiquity is not to everyone's liking.

Salisbury MP Robert Key is attempting to curb piped music in public places, citing the difficulties deaf and blind people encounter because of this ambient noise.

Mr Key also points to "jolly and frivolous" anecdotal evidence. People trapped in waiting rooms, lost in department stores or trying to catch the waiter's eye, all harried by muzak.

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Though strictly speaking "muzak" is a trade name for the system of delivering music to many parts of a building simultaneously, it has come to describe a whole genre of music.

Everyone has horror stories of traipsing around grimy, rain-lashed shopping centres haunted by the ghostly strains of Puppet On A String played on pan pipes.

"Muzak" has become a pejorative term. It is a broad brush which has damned such easy-listening greats as Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini and John Williams.


Bossa Nova, the Brazilian musical revolution of the 1960s, has also fallen foul of the "muzak" tag thanks to countless abuses of "The Girl From Ipanema".

Dr Adrian North, a psychologist from Leicester University, has examined the uses of piped music in public places and thinks Mr Key's crusade is misjudged.

Shopping centre
"Like a puppet on a strinnnnng.... "
"It seems positively bizarre that music should be singled out," he says.

People who complain to Mr Key about "muzak rage", may really be troubled by other elements of their environment.

Are we really enraged by listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or by being kept on hold by a telephone receptionist for 15 minutes?

Do we really hate the jazzed-up Gregorian chants of Enigma, or are we peeved by waiting our turn in at the doctors in a room crammed with coughing and spluttering fellow patients?

Demonised or din?

Dr North says piped music is unfairly demonised for our unhappy experiences. Killing off muzak will not solve our discontentment with certain public places.

"You'll have to regulate the paint, the product packaging, the seats, what the staff say to customers."

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Leicester University's research contradicts the damning indictment of piped music put forward by Mr Key and Pipedown, a celebrity-fronted pressure group against muzak.

"When you play the right kind of music, people say they prefer it to no music at all. Of course, they would choose silence over the playing of the wrong type of music," says Dr North.

A growing number of shops have played it safe, banning all music on their premises.

Rhythm to distraction

No-nonsense department store John Lewis is among them. "We wouldn't want to distract our customers in any way," said a spokeswoman.

It seems the days of dodgy cover versions of middle-of-the-road pop tunes - as reputedly played by the US military to break the fighting spirit of the Viet Cong - are numbered.

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Forward-looking shops are reviving the fortunes of piped music. Gone are the pan pipes and mournful guitars, to be replaced by in-store radio stations.

Big names such as Asda and Top Shop have invested in this new style piped music, confident of hitting the right note with customers.

Muzak, the Seattle-based company who first pioneered piped music in the 1920s, offer an "audio architecture".

Musical packages include such stars as Sir Elton John, Kenny Rogers and Fatboy Slim, and can be matched to the tastes of very specific demographic groups.

Dr North says such careful thought is only half the battle. For piped music to put a song in our hearts, it has to suit the environment it is played in.

Waiting room
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A fashion boutique which bombards its trendy clientele with pounding techno at the busiest time of the day, risks sending them running from the store in the grips of a panic attack.

Likewise, what may work on drinkers in a packed bar, won't please diners in an empty restaurant.

When adeptly chosen, Dr North says piped music can make businesses wealthy and customers healthy.

Refuting Mr Key's claims that the human immune system is damaged by ambient music, Dr North says studies have found levels of immuno globulin A in the blood actually increase when piped music is played.

It could even be argued shoppers are alive because of the sound of muzak.
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14 Mar 00 | UK Politics
MP tries to ban 'muzak'
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