What’s Elevator Music? Why Elevator Music Was Invented, What it Is, and More

Elevator Music: The Soundtrack of Modern Life

You might be surprised to learn that elevator music has an interesting history. What’s elevator music, you ask? It’s the instrumental background music you hear in elevators, department stores, and other gathering places.

Why Elevator Music?

We can make some educated guesses about why elevator music came into being. One theory is that early elevator riders were so terrified of the new technology that soothing music was needed to put their minds at ease. This is a fine theory, but it lacks historical accuracy. Elevator music was first found in elevators of the 1930s, by which time people had been riding in them for almost 80 years. It seems unlikely that elevator-induced anxiety grew to a fever pitch so long after the machine’s invention. It’s more likely that music was piped into elevators for simpler reasons. An elevator ride just seems a little more pleasant with music playing. In the days before smartphones, elevator passengers could listen to the music as they ascended or descended. It also saved passengers from forcing awkward small talk to cover the abject silence of the elevator car. Perhaps most importantly, playing music in elevators suggested a certain level of status. After all, if the business could afford to play music through loudspeakers in its elevators, it must be doing well.

Muzak: The Most Famous Name in Elevator Music

It’s impossible to discuss elevator music without mentioning the largest and most successful supplier of these tunes. Muzak Holdings LLC started in the 1920s and soon dominated the field of piped-in music. Over the years, Muzak produced more than 3 million songs. These ranged from instrumental smooth-jazz renditions of popular tunes to original pieces specially crafted to play unnoticed in the background. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Muzak could be found throughout modern society, not just in elevator cars. Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential residence played Muzak starting in 1953. NASA reportedly piped Muzak into the Apollo 11 capsule to keep astronauts calm during launch. Muzak fell out of favor in later decades, unable to shake its reputation for bland and banal background noise. Eventually, Muzak was acquired by Mood Media and rebranded.

What’s elevator music? It’s love-it-or-hate-it background music, yes. But also, it’s a modern phenomenon that started from humble beginnings and went on to form part of the soundtrack of our lives.