How Did Elevators Lose Their Music?

Hacker News - Sat Aug 6 01:14

They just called it elevator music back in the day. Everybody understood what the name meant—it was a dismissive term used to describe bland, inoffensive music intended to stay in the background.

But my informal research indicates that elevator music has almost disappeared. I can’t say I’m shedding tears, but part of me laments the loss of a cultural signifier from a simpler time. Like a quixotic crusader for a hopeless cause, I would prefer we keep elevator music, just make it better.

After all, TikTok has turned the 16-second song into a big deal—so why not transform the elevators of the world into a competing platform with higher aspirations (in all senses of the word)?

Are you ready for John Coltrane’s Ascension as a new kind of elevator pitch (even the name fits)? How about a Philip Glass accompaniment as you rise through the mechanical innards of a glass-and-steel skyscraper? Can we get Sun Ra on the speakers as we rise to the sundeck?

Well, why not?

I haven’t been able to identify the first elevator with music. But its grandest moment arrived with the opening of the 102-story Empire State Building—which piped in music to the elevators for the longest vertical trip in history up to that point. The year was 1931, and the music supposedly relieved the anxiety of the journey, but that may be more of an urban legend than reality.

The Elevator Ride (1887)

Elevators had already been around for decades back then. So I can’t imagine visitors to the building’s observation deck experiencing many worries about the trip. The more likely explanation for elevator music is a timeless one, namely that people get bored easily and want distraction.

But with phones and constant connectivity do we really need a song during our elevator journeys? Apparently not. Elevators are losing their soundtracks. At least, that was my hunch. In fact, I doubt whether the next generation will even understand what elevator music means.

I was unable to find independent market research on this matter. Probably only the elevator companies know for certain. But I conducted my own poll on Twitter—it’s the best I could do on my nonexistent market research budget—and the results were clear and unambiguous.

I asked people to recall the last elevator trip they took, and tell me whether musical or other entertainment was provided. Here are the results.

Music was heard in fewer than four percent of the elevator trips. But some other form of broadcast was provided in almost ten percent of the elevators.

I only have anecdotal information on geographic differences, but a number of my Twitter friends said that they associate elevator music with the United States. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. America may be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it’s also source of McDonalds, Meta, and Muzak and most of the other pre-fab experiences of modern life.

From the responses, I can tell that elevator music is still playing in parts of Asia, but less often in Europe. I’ve traveled extensively in both continents over a period of decades, and have a hunch that background music is more associated with wealth and status in some Asian cities, but likely to raise negative associations in, say, Paris or Rome. But that’s just an observation based on a handful of personal experiences, not a tested hypothesis. 

By the way, one of my Twitter friends even provided a video of his live performance in an elevator.

Britain seems especially resistant to elevator music—again, based on a small sample size of responses to my queries. Some claim never to have heard music in an elevator in the UK, and I can’t say that surprises me.

Britain is actually the epicenter of the anti-background-music campaign, known as Pipedown. This protest group even tried (unsuccessfully) to pass legislation banning background music. It’s curious that a country with so little ambient music should be so focused on eradicating the few examples that can be found. I will leave it to others to analyze what aspect of the British national character leads to this hostility to background songs.

But once again, why ban it if you can improve it. Let British musical pride ring out in the lifts. Let Vera Lynn sing again, in short installments from floor to floor. How about at least one verse of “I’m Henry the Eight, I Am” (and there only is one verse, as even the singer admits). Can I put in a vote for the even more succinct “Lloyd George Knew My Father”?

My research suggests that even people who have never experienced elevator music firsthand are aware of its existence from American movies and TV shows. This prominence in film clearly contributes to the perception that background music is quintessentially American.

But the story isn’t quite so simple. If you judged American attitudes to elevator music merely from movies, you would assume that it gives rise to mockery and ridicule. After all, the background music in films is often an ironic or humorous add-on. Clearly that isn’t the intention of real-life elevator music (or is it—who actually curates those songs?). In any event, I could devote a whole article to satirical presentations of elevator music in Hollywood comedies.

Why can’t we counter the stereotype? Can I phone someone at Otis Elevator (whose motto is “When you rise, we shine”) to make my elevator pitch?

I’ve consulted the websites of various elevator manufacturers, and am pleased to learn that they are planning next generation music for our high-rise journeys.  According to a white paper shared by Otis Elevator, the vertical transportation of the future will be able to recognize you as soon as you step onboard, and “the lighting, music or infotainment in the elevator cab will be tuned exactly to your preferences.”

If I’m a jazz fan, Monk or Miles will start playing the second I step into the elevator. Of course, what happens if a country or punk fan shares an elevator trip with me? Do we get a mash-up or medley? Does the majority rule, even with elevator music?

I don’t dismiss these innovations, but I fear that the elevator will never regain its prominence as the center of passive entertainment, no matter what I might prefer. In most communities, those irritating screens on the gas pump are more prevalent than elevator music. But the gas station owners are less interested in providing music, and far more excited about the prospect of force-feeding me advertisements.

Perhaps that will change. I can envision a world in which people experience gas pump music the way they once did elevator music. Maybe you only get the cool songs when you buy the premium gasoline or charge at the exclusive electric automobile station—while lowly users of regular unleaded get lousy ads.

This provides an opportunity for an entirely new genre. Some visionary composer needs to step up and do for gas stations what Brian Eno did for airports.

In the meantime, I will cherish those last remaining elevators with canned music. It may not be my preferred playlist, but at least someone is willing to entertain me as I embark on the daily struggle to rise in the world.