the muzak of popular noise

October 19, 2010

When I first heard we were going to be discussing sonic branding, I instantly thought of the aural marketing company Muzak, a company then mentioned by Prochnik in his “Retail: The Soundtrack” excerpt. A trademarked name that has been adopted as the noun for its product (a la Kleenex and Dumpster), Muzak provides businesses with more than just awkward silence-reducing elevator jams. Their website boasts its ability to create engaging sonic identities for every type of company, and gives examples of in-store soundtracks, soothing hold music and specialized voice actors announcing daily specials in tones appropriate for the target audience. What the site doesn’t tell you, however, is that all of these ways of creating retail soundscapes to influence consumer behavior are generated using Muzak’s many patented sound-formulas.

I’ve mentioned it before on this here FBT, but graphic designer and professional New York hipster Byron Kalet has spent years dissecting these formulas, attempting to reconcile the concept of popular music with the mathematical ways that “sound events” (as Noel Franus says) “provide a specific, intentional energy level for the environment.” The result of this critical thinking is the quarterly audio magazine The Journal of Popular Noise. Aside from a bold aesthetic design that remains constant from issue to issue, Kalet’s “magazine” is comprised of three unique soundscapes (pressed on limited edition 45s) constructed by various popular artists in accordance with Muzak’s strict song formulas. Because Muzak’s algorithms “make the most of psychoacoustics—linking sound to the brain—to affect our emotions and change our behaviors,” they are most effective for designing consistent acoustical environments. Kalet’s instructions are the same for every artist, with each required to create a “quintessential sound of your record” and draw it out through “canonized song structures,” “sound events,” and “repeating rhythmic elements” that “contain the most excitement.” JPN brings to light not only the mechanical nature of popular music, but also the many ways that these proven aural forms can be reinterpreted to create different acoustic environments. By dissecting the sonic standardization behind the magazine’s recordings, however, the results appeal to both the rational and the emotional sides of our psyche, helping listeners understand Muzak’s branding strategies by seducing and educating simultaneously.

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