The Sounds of Silence

Muzak has always been functional music above all, a successor to Latin
liturgical chants and 19th-century worksongs. Think of it as sea shanties
for the office-bound.

Only sea shanties were spontaneous, more or less. At Muzak, the rhythms of
the workday are carefully plotted out on Tom Killorin’s desktop computer. A
senior programmer for the Environmental Channel (also known as the
“Functional Motivational Program”), Killorin has mapped out the next eight
or nine workdays according to Muzak’s Stimulus Progression formula, which
around Muzak’s Seattle office is held in almost scriptural awe.

Stimulus Progression has been the key to Muzak’s programming since the
1940s. The day is divided into quarter-hour blocks, enough for four or five
songs. Each song within a given block is progressively more stimulating
than the last. As simple as that, but still, the notion is trademarked.
Muzak leaves little to chance.

Killorin’s computer sorts and codes the songs according to tempo and
instrumentation, assigning each a “stimulus value” between two and six. A
normal block might go: 3, 4, 5, 5, 6. But at certain times of the day, when
blood sugar drops and morale sags–we’re talking mid-morning and after
lunch–Killorin will up the tempo. In these “lifts” Killorin might schedule
a 4, 5, 6, 6, and 6. Each 15-minute set is followed by a short interval,
usually no more than twenty seconds, of blessed silence. Then the cycle
resumes, always lifting, never dropping.

Certain songs bear so-called “daypart restrictions,” meaning they cannot
be scheduled at cerrtain hours of the day. Led Zeppelin’s “What Is & What
Should Never Be” for instance, is relegated to the graveyard shift, while
“Will the Wolf Survive?” is for cocktail hour. The Indigo Girls’ “Galileo”
is a pick-me-up 6; “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman, is a fairly typical 3.

Muzak plays 24 hours a day, although the broadcast is split into two
staggered feeds, east coast and west coast, to deliver the morning and
afternoon lifts at the proper times to employees of the National Security
Agency in Fort Meade, Md., and of, say, a Wal-Mart in Nevada. Originating
at Muzak’s Raleigh, NC broadcast station, the signal is pumped onto a
geostationary satellite and received by local Muzak affiliates, who
broadcast the signal to their customers across the sub-carrier frequency of
a local FM radio station.

This is a relatively antiquated technology, in the age of direct digital
satellite transmission, but then, low-tech sound has always bedeviled
Muzak. It emanates from a tiny speaker in the ceiling, for starters, and
it’s always in mono. Not long ago, Muzak used tape machines that topped out
around 5,000 hertz; Fisher-Price probably makes better sound equipment.
Muzak’s since upgraded to a 300-disc CD changer at Raleigh, just enough
space for the Environmental Channel’s 5,000-track library.

Despite Muzak’s reputation for blandness, the Environmental Channel
encompasses a catholic range of tastes. On Muzak, the Nitty Gritty Dirt
Band coexists happily with Miles Davis, Modern English, and Georg Friedrich
Handel, a crossover lineup that would be unthinkable in the Yugoslavia that
is commercial radio. And even the most heavily rotated song will be played
only every couple of days or so, rather than every two hours.

“We’re the opposite of radio,” says Killorin, a former radio programmer.
“We don’t want to be overly repetitive; we want people to say, ‘Oh, I
haven’t heard that one in a while.’ Instead of, ‘Quit playing that!!'”

About 20 new songs are selected every week by a loose committee of
programmers, including Killorin, Mehan, and Steve Ward. First among their
criteria, they say, is a hummable melody. Anthemic rock songs are out, as
are crunchy guitar sounds and harsh, wailing vocals. Mehan has agitated to
get Nirvana on Muzak, but the others feel that the band’s sound depended
too much on Kurt Cobain’s voice.

“We’re looking for a melody,” says Killorin. “Not an image.” Asked his
favorite Muzak track, Killorin first cites the Cowboy Junkies’ “Anniversary
Song.” But then he thinks a little more, and says: “I like the original

Do you think the tides of Muzak are ebbing or rising? Are we witnessing the dilution of rock into mere atmosphere or is Muzak just an unfortunate musical tangent? Can you recover the essence of a song once it’s been Muzaked? Whether you’re a rocker, hummer, or hipster, you can take part in FEED’s online discussions. Just click on the Feedbag icon below and start posting!