Anahid Kassabian, Fordham University

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This essay is excerpted from a longer version which will appear in Popular Music Studies, Hesmondhalgh and Negus, editors. (Forthcoming, Oxford/Arnold 2002). Earlier versions were presented at the UCLA Department of Musicology in March 2001 and at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cultural Analysis in April 2001. My deep thanks to the graduate students and faculty who invited me to share my work and engaged in wonderful, provocative discussions of this material. My thanks also to the anonymous readers and to the Ames Fund at Fordham University for supporting this research.

  1. I have always been drawn to studying the engagements of music and subjectivities. The intersection of texts, psyches, and social relations is particularly intriguing to me when the texts in question are sequences of music neither chosen by their listeners nor actively listened to in any recognizable sense. This body of music includes, of course, film and television music; but it also includes music on phones, music in stores, music in video games, music for audio books, music in parking garages—all the music we hear more of per capita than anything else (Jones and Schumacher, quoted in Sterne 22-3).

  2. By most reckonings, the omnipresence of music in our lives is a trend that will increase for some time to come. One forward-looking example might be Bill Gates’s ideas for the “house of the future.” To live in such a house would mean wearing unique microelectronic beacons on your body that would identify you to the house. Based on your preconfigured profile, hidden speakers would “allow music to follow you from room to room” ( The Cisco Internet Home Briefing Center imagines a similar musical environment: “Music also seems to have no boundaries with access to any collection, available in virtually any room of the house through streaming audio” (Cisco Internet Home Briefing Center).

  3. From the perspective of the Broadband Residential Laboratory built by Georgia Tech last year, these “stereo-piping tricks of ‘smart’ homes … [are] just a starting point” (Gibbs). The examples mentioned here are among the most basic and least radical in the field known as ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp. First articulated in the late 80s by Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC (Weiser; Gibbs), ubicomp has become an active field of research. Georgia Tech’s Aware Home, for example, has in each wall of every room several audio and video input and output devices, as well as several outlets and jacks. The MIT Media Lab, as Sandy Pentland explains, has gone in a different direction: the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT “…has built a wearable ‘DJ’ that tries to select music based on a feature of the user’s mood…” as indicated by skin conductivity data collected by the wearable computer (Picard 716).

  4. All this research predates the momentous events of 2001, both the crash of the dot-com industry and the tragedy of September 11th. The tone in most high-tech research communities is more somber these days, less exuberant and infallible. But the shifts in the weeks since four airplanes, the Twin Towers, and a wing of the Pentagon—not to mention the thousands of travelers and workers in them—were lost may not be so somber for the future of ubicomp. The major increases in defense budgets mean a big boost for surveillance technologies research, and the widespread fear of travel has already caused a noteworthy upsurge in teleconferencing technology spending. Both of these research areas will have direct bearing on the future of ubiquitous computing, and therefore, of music and listening.

Where Did this Music Come From?

  1. Functional music’s history does not begin with media or computer technologies, despite my own rhetorical strategies here. Such a history might begin with the music hall—or even earlier, perhaps as far back as minstrels’ galleries in medieval castles. Another path could be followed to radio, and from there to music in salons and gazebos. Yet one more narrative would lead up to music played in the workplace and move on to music sung and chanted while working. Strangely, these possible narratives remain untold histories of omnipresent music in contemporary life and in industrialized settings.

  2. Two histories are told—an industrial one and a critical one. The former begins with General George Owen Squier, chief of the US Army Signal Corps and creator of Wired Radio, the company now called Muzak. This history, best represented by Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music and Bill Gifford’s FEED feature “They’re Playing Our Songs,” continues through shifts in technologies and markets to Muzak’s “stimulus progression” patents, to the 1988 merger with small foreground music provider Yesco (Gifford installment 3, page 2), and the rise of competitors AEI and 3M.

  3. The other documented history is a counter-history, a story of how a music came into being that could be confused with functional music, but is of course nothing like it—ambient music. That history begins with Erik Satie’s experiments in the 1910s and 20s with musique d’ameublement (furniture music), soars through Cage’s emphases on environmental sound and on process, and leads inevitably to Brian Eno, from whose mind all contemporary ambient music is thought to have sprung (Prendergast).

  4. Those who construct this history often go to great pains to distinguish ambient from background music on the grounds of ambient music's available modes of listening. As musician/fan Malcolm Humes put it in a 1995 on-line essay:

    Eno…tried to create music that could be actively or passively listened to. Something that could shift imperceptibly between a background texture to something triggering a sudden zoom into the music to reflect on a repetition, a subtle variation, perhaps a slight shift in color or mood.

    What is important to defenders of the ambient faith is its availability to both foreground and background listening. But since the mid to late 1980s, background music has become foreground music. According to the industry, “background music” is what we call colloquially “elevator music,” and “foreground music,” which is most of contemporary programmed music, consists of works by original artists. While background music has all but disappeared, you can now hear everyone from Miriam Makeba to the Moody Blues to Madonna to Moby in one public setting or another—and quite possibly all of them at your local Starbucks.

How Do We Listen to Foreground Music?

  1. If you attend to discourse about music in business environments, you may notice that the change from background to foreground music has hardly registered. By and large, most people talk about music in business environments as annoying and bad, and it is rare indeed to hear anyone talk about music in these settings as music they listen to intentionally elsewhere—even though this seems to me an obvious connection to make. The reason for the negative tenor of such observations is that they are not addressing music, but rather a mode of listening about which most of us are at best ambivalent—thanks in no small part to the disciplining of music in the Western academy.

  2. Music’s disciplinary practices have been soundly critiqued over the past decade or two. Scholars of music have discussed canon formations, architecture, and training; we have argued about analysis and we have talked about transcription. We have talked at length about the expert listening held in such high regard by Adorno and so carefully cultivated by Western art music institutions such as the academy and symphony orchestras. It is perhaps this expert manner of listening that is primary among the forces that produce and reproduce the canonical European and North American repertoire.

  3. Yet, in all these discussions we have not taken our own collective insights quite seriously enough. Logically, if expert, concentrated, structural listening produces the canon, wouldn't other modes of listening produce and reproduce other repertoires? But as foreground music programming has increased, this combination, or mutual dependence, seems less and less consistent or predictable. When anything can be foreground music, does it still make sense to talk about a mode of listening? And if so, what is its relationship to questions of genre?

  4. Is there, then, a programmed music mode of listening? Here I offer an anecdote as a beginning to an answer. Recently, I asked the students in my popular music class to write an essay on a half-hour of radio broadcasting. Ryan Kelly, a member of the New York City Ballet corps de ballet, began his essay by identifying himself as a non-radio listener. He described sitting down to listen to the assignment and beginning his essay, and ten minutes later finding himself at the kitchen sink washing dishes. This is, of course, only one story, but an eminently recognizable one.

  5. Jay Larkin of Viacom recently described to me a proto-ubicomp kind of system he had set up: he has speakers under his pillow so that he can sleep listening to music without disturbing his wife and without the intrusion of headphones. (He also listens to music constantly at work.) Larkin is profoundly articulate about this matter—he thinks of music as an “anchor,” keeping his mind from spinning off in various directions. Parents of children with attention deficit disorder are often advised to put on music while the kids are working for just such purposes.

  6. From its inception, Gifford says, Muzak was about focusing attention in this sense. Workers’ minds “were prone to wandering. Muzak sopped up these nonproductive thoughts and kept workers focussed on the drudgery at hand” (installment 2, page 2). Many of my students (and my daughter’s baby-sitters) leave the radio or MTV on in different rooms, so that they are never without music. They say it fills the house, makes the emptiness less frightening. Muzak’s own literature says “Muzak fills the deadly silence.” (For related, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives on attention, public and private spaces, and music, see DeNora and Le Guin.)



1    2    3    Works Cited  




Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity

Photo Essay

Masson and Berish:
Review Essay

Allen Forte


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