Monday, June 1, 2009

Music for supermarkets

We seem to have a fear of silence in public places and try to fill those awkward spaces with background music or muzak as it's often known. Muzak is meant to be gentle and soothing but often has the opposite effect, as anyone who has wandered round a supermarket to the strains of instrumental cover versions of Una paloma blanca or I just called to say I love you will know only too well. The ultimate horror is working in a place that plays a limited selection of easy listening favourites in a never-ending tape loop.

Even if the muzak versions of such hits are very pale copies of the originals they still are copyrighted to somebody and the shops have to pay for the privilege of playing it. However the answer to this problem is on the way in the form of computer generated muzak. According to an article in (Death to muzak!) researchers at the Spanish University of Granada have developed a program that will generate muzak on the fly, in a variety of genres. Since the muzak is composed and played immediately there is no copyright and so we can enjoy our supermarket melodies free of charge and with infinite variation.

This is of course bad news for synthesizer players who live off recording instrumental versions of old Barry Manilow hits but a giant leap for the rest of civilisation as we know it.

Not all muzak is like this however. Back in the late seventies musician and composer Brian Eno experimented with various forms of background music (ambient music) that were not meant to be listened to but would create an atmosphere conducive to, say, studying or writing. Indeed one of his albums of this period is called Music for airports. Music can be used positively in public places; the trick is to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

1 comment:

  1. How sad for the musicians. I remember my days in the college band. One very fine trombone player heard the "elevator music" playing in the background once and commented "Yep, that'll be me playing elevator music in just a few years. Gotta have some way to make money." Now we don't need the trombone player or even the keyboard player - just the computer. But is it art?
    - Jim