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Muzak to My Ears

Sam Turner

"Have you ever heard of Enya?" my dentist asks.

"Hate her," I say.

"Yeah, but several patients suggested her." To prove his point, he produces a sticky note with ENYA written on it.

This is all part of Larry Gabler's highly democratic background-music selection process. Seven years ago, having abandoned his habitual light-rock radio station, he installed a multiple-CD changer, began acquiring CDs, and set them to shuffle randomly. Now the mix changes constantly, based on what music Larry discovers during his lunch hour, which patients make suggestions, and who complains. On this particular day, a critical mass of dental hygienists has decreed that there is "too much twangy country," and so Larry is about to eighty-six Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. At first I disagree, but then I remember that, as a patient, I have a vote. If I produce Muddy Waters or Frank Sinatra on my next visit, both will be given a fair trial.

Enya or no, this is a marked improvement over the days when "dentist's office" music consisted of Muzak and Mantovani, a soundtrack that no one really listened to but that somehow set everyone's teeth -- real or temporary -- on edge. With the old background music, you had to concentrate if you wanted to identify a song. But without thinking, I know that "Born in the USA" is playing right now. I wonder what the rest of the world is listening to.


The last time I visited my neighborhood Conoco Break Place, loud Elvis dominated. Today the King has been replaced not by another artist, but by a sort of high-energy pulsing, played at a subliminal level. Inside the store, the pulsing is louder. Howard the manager, who is nearly deaf, explains that all the Conoco music comes from corporate headquarters.

"What happened to Elvis?" I ask.

"Say again?"

"Elvis?" I yell.

"Oh, we can change the channels on the doohickey in the back," he says, disappearing to do just that. After a few seconds, the pulsing changes -- to pulsing with a pedal-steel guitar thrown in. "Did it change to country?" Howard asks hopefully. "We're allowed to change it to whatever we want."

Downtown, all of the elevators are strangely silent. But there is music everywhere else.

At the ESPN Zone, it is unabashedly loud but indistinct, overlaid with the crash of bowling pins and video games. "We were slammed at lunch, so we had to turn it down," the hostess says. "It comes on satellite, from corporate."

"Sounds like Van Halen!" I yell.

"Not to me! I think it's Britney Spears!"

Whatever, it's still a sporting, manly mixture designed to make customers want to compete! And have a beer! And maybe a burger! And buy a T-shirt!

Over at the FirstBank branch office, the score is C&W-ish, with female vocals. Hey, life is hard for all of us Western folk, it seems to imply, but you can pull yourself up. So how about a home-equity loan? Or finance a new auto: You don't really live in Denver if you don't own a truck.

At the deserted Ann Taylor Loft store, I encounter genuine Muzak. "It's designed to make you want to stay and shop," explains a young saleswoman. "They send us a new one every month."

"And it repeats every three hours," her co-worker adds.

"And how do you like that?" I ask.

"It really sucks," she whispers. "We hear this aaaah-aaaah female singing all the time. Jennifer Lopez, Shakira."

"And the Cranberries, every single month," says a third saleswoman. "At least before, it was all instrumental."

Aaah-aaah female singing is the perfect description. Rather than making me want to stay and shop, it makes me want to leave.

I pop into the Children's Place, where I expect to hear Raffi, maybe. Instead, I hear whoa-whoa male singing, with harder beats. Backstreet Boys, I'm informed.

"Corporate puts it together for people who shop here, who aren't actually kids," says the young woman behind the counter. "They're people who work downtown. It's hip-hop, Top Forty, some Christian music mixed in."

"For people your age?"

"Right -- except personally, I like Christian punk. I could listen to MXPX and Reliant K all day, but it won't happen."

Later, in the Safeway produce section, I suddenly feel that all's right with the world. A second later, I realize this is because the Allman Brothers' "Melissa" is spouting from the P.A. system. Safeway's nailed me: A consumer who once considered this music risky and rebellious, I've grown old enough to express my reckless spirit by purchasing pints of berries I don't need.


"It's more than just creating a feeling of warmth in the background. We're there to help clients enforce their brand," says Brett Balthorpe, a third-generation purveyor of Muzak in San Antonio, Texas. (Before he got on the line, I was put on "Girl From Ipanema" hold, but only for a second.) "For about fifty years, all we did was the Environmental Program," he recalls. "That's the Muzak people stereotype. And then, fairly recently, they decided to appeal to customers who wanted what we call "foreground" music. We started adding programs -- country, classical, Spanish-language."

Muzak franchisees now offer a lot more than that. Balthorpe's Web site lists Non-Stop Hip-Hop, several different types of Christmas music, Blues, Basically Baroque and New West, featuring Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle. The only place I find Mantovani is under "Easy Instrumentals" -- targeted, if you can imagine, to the young and the hip.

Each program is mixed for a specific audience and age group -- "thirty to fifty, casual country lifestyles," for instance -- and formulated by what the Muzak home office calls "audio architects." Big companies, such as Eddie Bauer and the Gap, order custom music blends, which are fed to their outlets either via satellite or by monthly CD.

"You'll hear Muzak at fast-food/gas station-type places, too," Balthorpe offers, "and not just music, but voice. That's because they don't make much money off gas. They want to get people to come inside and buy hotdogs, even when most consumers want to get in and out as fast as possible. So they play music outside, which distinguishes their station, and then this overhead voice comes on and talks about hot coffee, hot doughnuts and Slurpees."

This is a far cry from early Muzak, the brainchild of General George Squier of South Carolina back in the 1920s. Squier's idea was to transmit phonograph music over electrical lines, for the sole purpose of increasing employee productivity -- a concept that had been tested by real scientists. A few years later, he expanded Muzak's role to include the calming of nerves. In the 1930s, riding an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building was considered a potentially scary experience; Muzak reportedly had a steadying effect. It soon spread to other skyscrapers and elevators all over the land. From there it was a short leap to dentists' offices, where people tend to be tense.

Balthorpe says calming duties have now been assumed by Soft Rock.

And they call this progress.


By the time I return to Dr. Gabler's office, Enya has a firm grip on the place. The patients love her. So do the hygienists, who recently gave Alanis Morissette the heave-ho. (No one can remember the offending lyric, but it was obscene.)

"We have two Floyd Cramers now," says back office manager Amy Pentz. "We got them from our patient George, a retired cowboy." Rather than donate CDs to the practice, other patients have produced Top Ten lists -- most recently, Classical and Girl Groups.

"We love to go out and buy from suggestions," Larry says, as "The Age of Aquarius" plays faintly in the background. "I like to be prevented from buying dud CDs."

Larry himself is responsible for the strain of Eagles, Tom Petty, Santana and Bob Dylan running through the current playlist. Front-desk manager Vicki Marley contributed the Eurythmics/Gino Vanelli/Patsy Cline segment and also claims to be responsible for Enya, although I doubt it. Amy Pentz is going through an eccentric phase, having brought in "Barbershop Favorites" as well as the soundtracks from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Forrest Gump.

Larry's current sticky note reads:

Who (Who's Next)

Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon)

Norah Jones

"One of my patients says she's the illegitimate daughter of a famous jazz guy," Larry explains. "And maybe a Manilow, I'm thinking."

"That would be great," Amy decides.

Great? Manilow?

"Statistically, we have about 1,500 songs available to us at any given time," Gabler says, probably to settle my nerves. "We might hear a hundred songs a day."

"The best part is, we listen to what we want," Vicki adds. "We don't have to put up with elevator music."

In fact, Larry took care of that back in 1973, the year he moved into this practice. "The entire building was wired for Muzak," he recalls. "First thing I did was cut the wires."


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