Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Are you being brainwashed by Muzak?

SerendipUpdate's picture

Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Are you being brainwashed by Muzak?

Debbie Yi

People listen to music for various reasons. Some people use music in order to increase relaxation. Others use music as a form of energy. Music is heard in cars, in homes, at shopping malls, and at dentists' offices, among many other places around the world. Sometimes, a song gets into your head and you find yourself humming a tune all day long and then you realize that a stranger who had passed you hours ago had been whistling that song, or that you had heard 2 seconds of that song on your radio alarm that morning before pressing the snooze button. This is the idea behind Muzak.

In 1922, General George Squier invented Muzak, a type of music to deliver from phonograph records to workplaces via electrical wires. He realized that the transmission of music at the workplace increased productivity of his employees. Soon after, there was a study that showed that people work harder when they listen to specific kinds of music. As a result, the BBC began to broadcast music in factories during World War II in order to awaken fatigued workers (1).

Muzak's patented "Stimulus Progression" which consists of quarter-hour groupings of songs is the foundation of its success. Stimulus Progression incorporates the idea that intensity affects productivity. Each song receives a stimulus value between 1 and 6 - 1 is slower and 6 is upbeat and invigorating. A contemporary, instrumental song full of strings, brass, and percussion (27 instruments in total) would most likely receive a stimulus value of 5 (3). During a quarter hour, about six songs of varying stimuli values are played followed by a 15-minute period of silence (2). A 24-hour plan is engineered to provide more stimulating tunes when people are the most lethargic - at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and slower songs after lunch and towards the end of the day.

Careful programming of Muzak has been proven to increase morale and productivity at workplaces, increase sales at supermarkets, and even dissuade potential shoplifting at department stores. Over 20 years ago, numerous department stores in the United States and Canada installed what was called "the little black box," which mixed music and anti-theft messages. The quick repetition of "I am honest. I will not steal." 9,000 times an hour at a barely audible volume was able to curb shoplifting at one of the department stores by 37% during a nine-month trial (4).

More recently, Adrian C. North, a psychologist at the University of Leicester, measured the influence of music on decision-making. He and his colleagues tested the effect of in-store music on wine selections at a supermarket by setting up a wine shelf with French and German wines. On alternating days, French accordian music or German pieces done by a Bierkeller brass band were played over a two-week period. Prices were similar, shelf ordering was reorganized daily, and if French music played the first Monday, German music was played on the following Monday. In order to make the nationality of the wines clear, national flags were attached to the display adjacent to the wines. After the shoppers made their wine selections, an interviewer disguised as a shopper approached the consumers to fill out a questionnaire regarding their purchase. The questions delineated whether the respondent had a preference for French or German wines before the purchase, to what extent the music made him/her think of France or Germany, and if the music influenced his/her wine selection. 82 shoppers bought wine from the display during the two-week period, and 44 agreed to complete the questionnaire (5).

The results indicated that music did indeed influence shoppers' wine selections. When French music played, 40 bottles of French wine and 8 bottles of German wine were purchased. When German music played, 22 bottles of German wine and 12 bottles of French wine were purchased (5).

Researchers Charles Areni and David Kim have established a preference-for-prototypes model, which suggests that the mind is composed of closely packed, interconnected cognitive units which relate music and other structures and ideas (6). According to their model, music can stimulate the mind into thinking about ideas similar to the music. For example, French music conjures up images of France. In addition, the speed of music can influence behavior. For example, several studies have been conducted which illustrate how fast music makes supermarket shoppers more around more quickly. Likewise, fast music causes diners to eat faster and slow music slows eating down (and leads to more drinks being purchased at the bar) (6).

What is interesting about background music is that it is intended to be just that - noiseless noise. The concept of barely audible tunes affecting one's behavior leads to the question as to whether one's behavior can be manipulated by another individual without the person being aware of the manipulation. According to the research conducted by North, unobtrusive music selected by store managers, business managers, and companies like Muzak can affect a person's thoughts and action without the person even knowing.

This is evidence that stimuli below the threshold of conscious can influence thoughts, feelings, and actions without the I-function becoming involved or even knowing about it - that there is unconscious perception. It is likely that a number of other things can cause the same result. Events which an individual didn't realize was being witnessed could be interpreted by the person's unconscious and correspond to behavior (7). This theory diminishes the power of the I-function because conscious recognition is not necessary to cause action. This suggests that there are lag times in processing information to the I-function and that only selected information gets to the I-function. As a result, the I-function is not getting involved and people are not consciously recognizing that they are being manipulated by music when it is occurring. Therefore, the unconscious is being manipulated. Is it even manipulation if you didn't know it was happening and you didn't know it had an effect on you?

If the conscious is a sieve, then the unconscious is a vacuum. The influence music has an individual's actions and behavior is evidence that the unconscious is substantially faster than the conscious mind. Sights and sounds that are not registered by the conscious are likely to be registered by the unconscious. It seems like we should not be scared of subliminal messaging through music, but rather, be amazed by the power of the unconscious mind.


1) Muzak Home Page, The Muzak website with some interesting information on the company's background

2)Article on Stimulus Progression , A good foundation for understanding Muzak's patented Stimulus Progression

3)Muzak Stimulus Progression graph, Interesting graph on how Muzak chooses ratings for different instrumental songs

4) "Secret Voices: Messages that Manipulate," Time, September 10, 1979, 71. ~ Good background on the subliminal messaging through music in department stores

5)Adrian C. North's homepage, Fascinating research on the effect of French or German music on the selection of French or German wines

6) Areni, C.S., & Kim, D. "The influence of background music on shopping behavior: Classical versus top-forty music in a wine store," Advances in Consumer Research, 1993, 20, 336-340. ~ Additional research on the influence of music on shopping behavior

7)Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Webpage , A good resource on different types of subliminal perception


Further Reading

BBCi Web page , Muzak: Past, Present, and Future

University of Waterloo Department of Psychology Web site , Additional background on the influence on subliminal messaging on the unconscious mind



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

01/12/2006, from a Reader on the Web

I'm not so sure that the concious mind is slower to process information than the unconcious mind. The concious mind is determining which information to process and store, and which to ignore, this would have to occur at a faster rate than that of the unconcious mind which is willing to process anything. The reason being that assuming the concious and the unconcious mind are innundated with the stimulus at the same time, the concious mind processes the information and deems it irrelevant (i.e. we ignore the music in the background), or processes it and deems it vital, therefore storing it (hence we recognize the stimulus and react to it), whereas the unconcious mind simply receieves and stores the information, regardless of origin or content, and we unconciously react to it. Although the process of unconcious would be simpler, it does not mean that our unconcious mind processes information faster, it simply has less steps and filters in its processing. Not sure if I made that, its really just an opinion than a scientific reasoning...after all I'm a business student, not a psychologist :)



Serendip Visitor's picture

Your Essay And Muzak

I'd like to inquire into your music research. Please feel welcome to contact me at my e-mail address. Thank you.
Serendip Visitor