Styles & Forms | Easy Listening | Popular & Novelty

Until it was reclaimed with an ironic wink by 1990s hipsters, easy listening had been hugely popular, but rarely cool. While the teenagers of the 1950s and 1960s were getting off on dangerous rock’n’roll and subversive R&B, their parents were sweetly cocooned in the music of Mantovani and Percy Faith.

Easy listening music never launched any rebellions; no riots raged to its syrupy strains. When Sam Mendes, the director of the 1999 movie American Beauty, wanted to emphasize the gulf between his two leads, he had Kevin Spacey rock out to Pink Floyd while Annette Bening daydreamed to the ‘champagne music’ of Lawrence Welk.

Easy listening is unobtrusive, pacifying music built around pleasant, easily digestible melodies. Which is not to say it has no artistic value: within its wide borders can be found a rich spectrum of sounds, seasoned with influences from classical to pop to rock to jazz. Though often dismissed as hollow and uninspired, the genre has been distinguished by the work of some lavishly talented musicians, including such immortals as Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach. Among its less publicized fans was one John Lennon, who admitted furtively indulging while Yoko Ono was away on business.

A Birthplace In Business

Beautiful music, mood music, elevator music, background music, light music, adult contemporary, light classical; all fall in some way beneath the umbrella of easy listening, as do the more sugary releases of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Patti Page, Eva Cassidy and The Carpenters. Since it was concerned with the subtle influencing of mood, it also had much in common with movie music; many easy listening stars doubled as soundtrack composers.

But the genre’s origins lie in commerce, and one of its fathers was not a musician but an American soldier. Brigadier General George Owen Squier patented the transmission of background music in the 1920s and his corporate intentions were implicit in the name he chose for it – ‘Muzak’ – which combined ‘music’ with ‘Kodak’, the name of one of his favourite companies. Originally designed to soothe the nerves of workers making vertiginous journeys up the first skyscrapers, the modulated supply of watered-down classical, jazz and popular tunes soon became known as ‘elevator music’.

Gradually increasing in tempo throughout a shift and regimented into a mood scale ranging from ‘gloomy-minus three’ to ‘ecstatic-plus eight’, Muzak became popular with company bosses, who believed it increased productivity and boosted morale. By the early 1970s, 47 of the world’s 50 largest corporations were subscribers; Muzak was played in shopping malls and airport departure lounges, used as telephone hold music, and was even piped into Polaris submarines. Muzak’s ability to influence, or ‘tint’, human moods fascinated musicians like Brian Eno, who explored it in his Discrete Music LP (1975), generally acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of ambient music.

Others saw in Muzak sinister echoes of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World, in which citizens were fed...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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