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What Is Elevator Music?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Elevator music is, as its name might suggest, music of the variety that is often played in commercial elevators in offices, hotels, and other corporate structures. It is usually distinguished by its slow cadence and instrumental tones. The songs played are usually familiar or recognizable tunes, but with words removed and often only one or two instruments joining to form the melody. A number of companies specialize in composing and delivering this sort of music. There are usually several reasons why elevator operators might want music, perhaps most importantly as a calming technique. Most of the time, though, music sold for use in elevators can be used in other settings, too; it’s often piped in as background music for stores, hotels, and other commercial properties. It is often credited with providing a mood without the expense and royalty payments normally incurred with other streaming music services, all while avoiding the commercial interruptions of standard radio. It is not without its critics, though. Many people find the concept mildly annoying, and the artists who produce this work are sometimes thought to be musical “sell outs.”

Basic Idea

The overarching motivation behind elevator music is usually to create a calm, tranquil place for passengers traveling between floors. It tends to be most common in high rise buildings where passengers have longer rides, or else in stores or shopping centers where there are likely to be crowds. In some respects, the concept is similar to that of music used in commercial phone systems while customers are on hold.

The style is heavily linked to music genres such as easy listening and instrumental music. It typically utilizes soft-sounding instruments and rhythms, and often emphasizes keyboards, subtle orchestras and synthesizer music.

History and Early Inception

The backbones of the technology are usually credited to U.S. Army officer George Owen Squier, who apparently conceived of a wired music delivery service outside of standard radio broadcasts while serving in the military in the early 1900s. From 1911 onwards, he reportedly worked to hone the idea of selling music through wires instead of wirelessly. Radio listeners did not take up the idea as their wireless radio was free.

As the story goes, he changed course and began offered the service to companies for their office lobbies and elevators. At that time radio required a lot of equipment, which rendered it impractical for use in small spaces like elevators. The idea he proposed was that calming music would help people work better and improve productivity. The sales tactic worked and elevator music was born.

Squier’s model formed the basis for the company that later became Muzak®, a business specializing in watered-down blends of popular tunes and musical hits for use as commercial background music. The company has become so popular in modern times that the “muzak” name is often used, lower-cased, as a generic term for elevator-style music heard anywhere. Mood Media, the corporate owners of the Muzak brand, officially retired the brand name in 2013, though it it is still very commonly used in the popular vernacular.

How It’s Formed

Modern elevator music is often formed in two ways. The simplest way is to remove the vocals from an appropriate track and use just the music. The second way is to buy or pay a musician to record either an original song or a cover of an existing composition that can be used.

Major Purchasing Options

In either case, the music usually has to be licensed before it can be played. Copyright laws in most countries prohibit the broadcasting of any music without an express license from the owner, which is usually the composer or a record label. Depending on the song in question, licenses can be really expensive, and this is one of the reasons for the popularity of services like Muzak®. The songs played on these compilations are usually covers performed by unknown artists who can’t command the price of those with better established identities. Songs are usually sold in bundles, too, which can reduce overall costs.

Almost all elevator-type music is purchased or streamed directly from companies that specialize in the genre. It’s often possible to find blends and channels designed to evoke certain emotions, or that align with things like the seasons or upcoming holidays. Companies can also purchase collections that are primarily classical, for instance, or those that are mostly renditions of top-40 hits.

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Discussion Comments

By anon999354 — On Dec 16, 2017

I like to play elevator music while I study. It gives me better focus, and makes time pass faster. Recommended for studying.

By Buster29 — On Jan 19, 2014

I'll tell you what scares me about elevator music sometimes. I'll hear a song come on and think it sounds a little familiar, then realize it's something by Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. It isn't just Perry Como or Andy Williams anymore. I'll hear Muzak in the grocery store or elevator music in a hotel and realize I'm listening to the same stuff that drove my parents crazy when I was a teen.

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