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The Sounds of the Season: A Lot of Thought Goes into What You're Hearing

December 05, 2007
The Sounds of the Season: A lot of thought goes into what you're hearing By Cindy Sutter Camera Staff Writer Friday, November 9, 2007 Photo by Mark Leffingwell Jesse Chesnutt, DJ Consciousness, spins records at Hapa in Boulder. Background tunes accompany shopping, eating, phone waiting, even hospital visits Here it comes. Christmas music. This is one time of year when it's difficult not to notice the background music that pervades our experience. Heather Drake, senior marketing manager of FlatIron Crossing, says the mall is gearing up for the holiday season. "We'll definitely have holiday music (starting) the Saturday before Thanksgiving. That's when Santa arrives and the whole holiday campaign begins." The holiday music will be composed of traditional favorites, as well seasonal songs that once hit the charts, Drake says. STORY TOOLS E-mail story Comments iPod friendly Printer friendly More Holideals '07 Holidays Holiday happenings: Complete guide to local seasonal events Zantzinger: A guide to the holiday lights Cool holiday LEDs sell like hotcakes Share and Enjoy [?] Share your video, photos and news tips. But it's not just the jing, jing, jingle this time of year that makes its way to our ears. Few commercial spaces are without music these days, a long-time fact of modern life mostly attributable to George Squier, a former army officer who discovered a way to transmit sound through telephone wires into homes, and patented the process. In the early 1920s, Squier started Muzak, one-time purveyor of dreaded "elevator music," which got its name from the soothing tunes piped in to make elevator travel less terrifying during the then-burgeoning skyscraper boom. Soon the music was being played in stores and workplaces, especially after some studies showed that music boosted worker productivity and later studies suggested that music kept customers in stores longer. Gone today are the aggressively innocuous instrumental versions of popular hits that saturated store speakers in the 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays, music is generally by the original artist and a packaged mix of similar tunes. Drake says the FlatIron Crossing's music, provided by Muzak, is mostly chart-topping favorites of years past. "The goal is obviously to create a very pleasant shopping experience for all of our guests. Music is a huge part of that," she says. You don't want anything too soft to where people are falling asleep. You don't want anything too hard or fast where people feel like they're at a concert. It's that beautiful medium. That's what we're trying to reach." At King Soopers, shoppers may read their food labels and squeeze their avocados to music from categories that include current, country classic, jazz instrumental, jazz vocal, oldies, rock classic and urban hip-hop. The selection varies from store to store, depending on what the manager believes will appeal to shoppers, and day to day. If managers want to change the mix, they submit a request to the advertising department, which contacts the store's music vendor. Some businesses take a very focused approach with their music, using a particular type, generally at a louder volume, to attract customers. Foreground music is the term marketing types use for such tunes, which can be anything from hip-hop to New Age. Mark Van Grack, owner of Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar in Boulder, likes to keep things customer-specific by using a DJ on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. "I've always liked the idea of music being somewhat live," he says. "Our venue is too small to actually have a band. There is something about having someone there actually playing the music versus just a background music to have it on." Van Grack says a big advantage is that the DJ can change the music to suit the crowd and the time of day. "Earlier in the evening, the crowd wants to dine. The music is a little more chilled, not as uptempo. As the evening goes on, the crowd wants to be bopping to the music in their seats while they're eating. Then we go into late-night happy hour. It kind of goes up in volume all evening." If the music at Hapa is synchronized to mood and time, the soundtrack at Whole Foods is more a matter of personal taste, the preferred listening of the manager on duty. "We have a main control room," says spokeswoman Lauren Evans. "The store team leader comes in in the morning and picks a station on satellite radio. The music can tell you who's running the shift," she says with a laugh. One former assistant store team leader was a big bluegrass fan, she says. "Everyone would give him a hard time when he put on the bluegrass station." A bit more customer-conscious, but still somewhat idiosyncratic approach is Fresh Idea Group's system for choosing its on-hold music. "I'm trying to choose music that speaks to our name. We want things that are fresh, things that are pleasing and similar to the clients we work with, we want them to be seasonal," said account manager Barry Hirsch, as he loaded music from his MP3 onto the corporate communications company's phone system. He had chosen "Love and Happiness" by Al Green and "April in Paris" by Billie Holiday, along with selections by Beck and Alicia Keyes. For the holiday season, he plans to go for subtlety. "Maybe songs reminiscent of snowy winter days, but not the traditional," he says. While music is often used to relieve boredom, it can also make difficult situations less stressful. Such is the work of Don Campbell, Boulder author of "The Mozart Effect" and director of acoustic services for Aesthetic Audio Systems, which counts 15 hospitals among its clients including Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette. "Hospitals can be very loud," Campbell says. "A noisy environment creates tensions within the body." To ease the stress, his company has a carefully choreographed music system, with specific types of music designated for certain areas of the hospital, although the music does not extend into patients' rooms. "We have different programs for public hallways, for the maternity ward, for emergency room waiting, outpatient waiting and surgical waiting. We have specific programs for the chapel, for the hospital gardens outside, as well as for the administrative areas," he says. In maternity, for example, he describes the music as "lighter, joyful, familiar and what we would call mildly upbeat." That includes instrumental lullabies and familiar children's songs. "There's a magic button that every time a child is delivered, the new father gets to push the button. Everyone in the hospital hears "Brahms' Lullaby." They know a new life has come." In surgical and emergency waiting, the music is light jazz piano, classical music and New Age. In the administrative areas, where hospital personnel are working, the music is more structured to help them maintain focus. In all areas, music changes styles every 20 to 30 minutes to avoid tedium. "We use a remarkable computer program so that we never have two pieces of music being played in the same order, so that there is a refreshing aspect to the music," Campbell says. And if you don't want other people picking your background music for you? There's always the iPod. Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at 303-473-1335 or sutterc@dailycamera.com.