It's a hot Saturday afternoon and you're waiting for your mom in Macy's while browsing the expensive scarves and designer jewelry. There's a soft sound in the background that slowly enters your cerebrum and after a while you can't help but be very aware of it. It's an isolated and simplified version of something familiar and you can almost make it out, but not really. Is it Beethoven? Mozart? The Black Eyed Peas? "The Girl from Ipanema"?
Elevator music has become the universal phrase for a specific kind of song that we nowadays mostly find in waiting rooms or department stores, but the roots of the strange genre of music does actually come from elevators. But who thought that elevators needed music in the first place?
The myth is that music first entered elevators to make people less afraid of the machines, but there is little evidence that this true. Though elevators were presumably somewhat unsettling at the time of their invention (and even still are today), elevator safety has always been a top priority in the industry—safety mechanisms were introduced as early as the 1853 World's Fair.
So no, elevator music was not created to distract you from your impending death. Instead, it was put in place as means to distract you from something else: waiting.
Even now elevators aren't the speediest means of transportation (unless you're riding one of these), and back in the early twentieth century it took a long time to go from floor to floor. To make time pass a little faster, music was proposed.
At the start of the Roaring Twenties, Army General George O. Squier perfected a method for transmitting music across electrical wire. But Squier was kind of late to the game, as radio had pretty much already been fully implemented in society. Squier then was forced to find a different market for himself, and he settled on creating music for stores, restaurants, and offices. Liking the ring that the name "Kodak" had, he used a similar convention for naming his own company: Muzak.
Muzak released its first song in 1934 and evolved into a household name and universal term for elevator music across the board. Muzak became so recognizable it became standard practice to include it not just in stores and elevators in real life, but in films and television as well. But its purpose still remained—Muzak and its catchy tunes existed to make you less bored.
As elevator music gained prominence it began to exert another purpose. Building administrators felt the music filling the atmosphere seemed classy, and showed that the building had the wealth to entertain their guests. So the idea was while you waited around for the lift, you also felt the elevator music was a small luxury.
Meanwhile Muzak became the leading brand in background music, expanding their reach to vestibule and office music to increase worker productivity. Elevator music slowly but surely escaped the restraints of the elevator to spread across entire buildings.
Sadly, the reign of elevator music began to fade by the sixties. Instead of being perceived as the little luxury it once was, people started to find it downright annoying. Maybe advancements in technology are why we no longer enjoy elevator tunes: portable music players (and now, smartphones) allow for greater entertainment than a soft melody played in the background of our lives.
People across the globe began speaking of it with great distaste; even today, the words "elevator music" don't necessarily spark a positive tone. Today we might call something "elevator music" to imply it's boring—ironic, considering boredom is what it originally set out to cure.
Brittany K. King is a Chicago-based writer and founder of Film Daddy. She spends most of her time avoiding saying the word ‘gyro’ out loud.
Follow Brittany on Twitter @brittanykking.