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 Mellons 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.
- 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 garagesall
the music we hear more of per capita than anything else (Jones and
Schumacher, quoted in Sterne 22-3).
- 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 Gatess
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
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).
- 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 Techs 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 users mood
as indicated by skin conductivity
data collected by the wearable computer (Picard 716).
- 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 Pentagonnot to mention the thousands of travelers and workers in themwere 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?
musics history does not begin with media or computer technologies,
despite my own rhetorical strategies here. Such a history might begin
with the music hallor 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.
- Two histories
are toldan 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 Lanzas Elevator Music
and Bill Giffords FEED feature Theyre Playing
Our Songs, continues through shifts in technologies and markets
to Muzaks 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.
- 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 itambient music. That history begins with Erik Saties
experiments in the 1910s and 20s with musique dameublement
(furniture music), soars through Cages 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).
- 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
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.
How Do We Listen to Foreground Music?
- 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 elsewhereeven 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 ambivalentthanks in no small part to the disciplining
of music in the Western academy.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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 matterhe
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
- 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 daughters 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. Muzaks 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.)