The Stimulus Progression - Muzak

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx writes, “The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.” The great loser of this history has been aurality: after sight came to the fore in that great visual age, the Enlightenment, the golden age of aurality that preceded it was lost to us forever. That history is silent. Not until Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 do we know, with certainty, what sounds our ancestors heard.

In pre-Industrial societies, music ordered the day, providing a continuous conditioning of the environment. Like animals in the wild, individuals sang either individually or in groups. When in groups, singing was always a collective act. Even when one or more particularly talented singers led the tune, everyone in the group contributed to the performance, either as a singer of the narrative, a member of the chorus, or by supporting the rhythm. The rhythm of songs was key to work, coordinating workers’ muscles for the repetitive tasks of the day. Songs marked the cyclical time of day and provided the sensation of time passing. Songs commented on the work process, everyday life, or religious themes, thereby establishing a shared bond between co-workers even in the most difficult of situations. Songs sung together at the workplace, at home, and in worship established solid bonds in communities by providing shared experiences and marking the memory of other shared experiences. Music was both a communal activity and, in memorializing events, the beginning of history-writing.

If everyday life was structured by an acoustic rhythm, the repetition of songs was a constant producer of difference. Each time a song was sung, it was original, adapted to the circumstances of the moment. Until the Industrial Revolution, all sounds were unique. Whether they were produced for music, as by- products of human actions, or natural in origin, sounds could not be replicated.

The everyday acoustic environment was not, however, a merely temporal activity. It was also spatial, marking out a territory through sound. Music warded off a hostile nature by asserting the presence of humans against the sounds of the wild.

But some sounds could not be tamed. Anthropologists theorize that loud sounds, especially those in the lowest acoustic registers, inspire feelings of awe and dread. Thunder, the ocean, storms, waterfalls, and volcanoes terrified primitive peoples, making them sense that God would soon punish them. Priests and rulers would use church bells, gongs, and the pipe organ to simulate these loud, low-frequency sounds, thereby instilling the sensation that God was present. This sonic God was often not only invisible but also inaudible, produced by infrasonic phenomena. God’s infrasonic existence explains why in Judeo-Christian tradition his name is unutterable. Noise, Jacques Attali writes, is capable of disrupting tissues, and carries with it the threat of death. Through harmony, noise can be sublimated. By releasing dissonance, music functions like ritual sacrifice, reproducing the terror of murderous violence, thereby demonstrating how God could redirect destructive forces for mankind’s good and, in dissolving the individual in a greater whole, affirms society.

The Industrial Revolution brought radical change to the acoustic landscape of everyday life. Machines on the factory floor produced loud sounds without regard to aesthetics or human comfort. Nor did these new industrial sounds stop at the factory walls: some factories were loud enough to be heard beyond the gates, while trains and later automobiles generated sounds that permeated the city. With machines becoming the dominant producers of sound, power shifted from the Church to Capital and the background against which everyday life was lived changed from nature to industry. Workers had little control over these sounds; they were, in general not participatory, not pleasant, and afforded little variation. Singing was increasingly difficult in this new environment. Industrial machinery created a new rhythm to life. The nineteenth century factory boss and the twentieth century manager replaced the song-leader in the field but instead of working in concert with his fellows, the industrial manager ordered his workers around and expected no response except blind obedience. In agricultural life, there could be no alternative to field work, groups could only eat what was previously sown. In the factory however, songs of dissatisfaction were not only emotional releases, but could incite revolt as well. Songs commenting on the work process could not be permitted, and factory owners banned them. Many companies perceived employee-produced music as a distraction from dangerous work with the expensive new machinery. Henry Ford’s workers were expected to work in silence.

With capitalism replacing sacred and courtly society, music became autonomous from the sacred. In addition to spreading machine sounds throughout the city, industrialization also allowed the bourgeoisie to amass capital, thereby threatening the cultural exclusivity of the aristocracy. As the newly rich industrialists looked to express their higher cultural standing, they appropriated courtly music for their own entertainment. Music was tied to public architecture and to the metropolis. It is no accident that Garnier’s Opéra is the centerpiece of Haussmann’s Paris. The musical performance is the center of social life, the place to see and be seen. If the mixing pool of the Opéra’s staircase demonstrated a Utopian near-equality—only the Emperor viewed the scene from above—the performance reinforced hierarchy as the seating itself demonstrated social status. The nature of performance changed as well. The rowdy collective audiences of the past were reterritorialized: individuals contemplated the performance in silence, but then united at the end to give their collective verdict through applause. At home, the piano took up residence in the bourgeois household. An instrument of unwieldy size and shape and great expense, it verified the owner’s status in society. In the city especially only a well-off person could afford to give such space to music.

Thomas Edison developed the first phonograph in 1877, harnessing sound to play it back from a rotating cylinder. The packaging of Edison’s cylinders led consumers to call the new medium “canned music,” indicating the new status of music as a commodity. A decade later, Emile Berliner invented the gramophone, which played back sound from a revolving disc. Consumers could, for the first time, purchase and control their audio programming as previously only the aristocracy could do. Fans could listen to their favorite songs repeatedly. The weary worker could relax at home and listen to songs on demand, without expending effort.

In the Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg explains that the gramophone and the phonograph objectified music: reducing it to an accompaniment to a piece of furniture and doing away with the need for a public architectural space for enjoyment of music. Instead of listening to music in an opera house, philharmonic hall, church, or pub, from that point on people listened to objects such as record players, and radios. Moreover, the development of the mass-produced record made it possible for individuals to collect music as an object, something to admire on a shelf as much as audibly.

The experience of listening to recorded music is a distinct experience from producing music or going to a concert. The ease of playing it back allows the listener to perceive the music through distraction, not through active contemplation. Moreover, while listening to music in one’s own home undid the old experience of communal musical appreciation, the mass distribution of a single, recorded piece allowed dispersed communities to form around a single performance’s appreciation regardless of its original time or location.

The appearance of mass-produced music at the turn of the century came at a moment when leisure time was expanding, thereby posing new problems for the recently invented profession of the manager. For if the factory and office demanded new levels of attention from the worker, they also created new heights of monotony. Both the workday and the workweek shortened so that employees could have time to recover from their dull labors, but leisure time had its own dangers: the working class could fall prey either to destabilizing mass-oriented political forces or to drink and unruly individual behavior. Welfare organizations such as the YMCA sprang up to help workers while corporations created organized activities such as sports and adult education. To teach workers lasting values and make the workplace a more humane place, corporations established programs in which workers either listened to or produced approved music. At Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, a pipe organ and reproducing piano were installed so that musicians could play for the employees. Henry Ford hired the Detroit Symphony to play for his employees several times a year. Department stores held morning sing-alongs in order to instill politeness in their workers. All this took time out from leisure and allowed a conditioning of the workers’ lives.