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Ambient Music and Muzak

As a fan of ambient music, I admit that I've sometimes asked myself the uncomfortable question: is this really any different from Muzak? (If you don't know that word: it's the brand name for the service that provides background music for stores, offices, and so forth. Like "Kleenex", it also serves as the generic term for the kind of product it is.) 

I have two answers: "No, not really" and "Yes." It certainly can be and often is used in the same way. Go into a certain type of trendy retail shop, maybe one with a new age spirituality vibe, and you may hear dreamy background music, possibly based on electronics, possibly having some natural sounds mixed in, but in any case pretty unstructured, without much distinctive rhythm or melody: all atmosphere and little structure. It's using a different vocabulary or repertoire from Muzak, which uses (or used to use) sappy instrumental versions of pop songs, but its function as background is much the same.

But nobody sits and listens to Muzak, at least not as such. It isn't meant to be listened to. Whereas people do listen, quite attentively, to ambient music--but not necessarily, or always. The old master, Brian Eno, put it well: ambient music should be "as ignorable as it is interesting." One difference, a pretty big one, between ambient music and mere background music is that the former is very consciously intended to be what it is.

I'm trying to remember now how I came to be acquainted with the music and with the term, and I can't come up with it. I guess it started with what was once called, first positively and then pejoratively, New Age music: mostly instrumental music, usually on the quiet and contemplative side. And then there was a long love affair with the music of the German group Tangerine Dream, which is mostly fairly complex and definitely not ambient, but is almost all electronic, and gave me a taste for the other-worldly quality which electronics can provide. And for many years I listened regularly to the ambient radio program Music From the Hearts of Space (the name is a little cringey to me, but I certainly heard a lot of good music there. I may have picked up the term "ambient music" there.

But that slight misgiving, that question about ambient and muzak, persisted. So I noticed with interest this headline at The Guardian: "Lost in muzak: how ambient music became cool". I of course didn't know it had ever become un-cool. The piece doesn't really address my question except maybe at the very end, with an observation that if you're listening to it closely it isn't ambient. Yes, but you could ignore it. Or half-ignore it. You can sort of step in and out of it at will, and you haven't lost the thread, the plot so to speak, as you would with classical music or for that matter almost any other kind of music. Steven Hill, the proprietor of HOS, uses the word "contemplative" a lot, and that's generally applicable.

Cool or not, there's no doubt that some specimens of the genre remain...interesting, and not ignored. Eno's Music for Airports  released in 1978, has as much claim to "classic" status in the general category of non-classical music as anything else of its time. I think its subtitle, Ambient 1, may be the first use of the term in this context. It sounds as fresh to me now as when I first heard it, which was not when it came out but still probably something close to thirty years ago. 


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I don't really like the bird/oceanic type noises some physiotherapists / massagers play. I prefer almost anything that has songs in it.

Ambient is the opposite of songs , not just in practice but in principle. But most of it doesn’t have natural sounds.

"as ignorable as it is interesting"

The ambient music I tend to like leans more towards the 'interesting' side and less the other way. I don't necessarily have to have melody, but I find that I'm not attracted to music that doesn't have chord progressions, irrespective of style. So while I'm not a fan of the Eno type of ambient music, I like things like Hammock and Slow Meadow a lot.

I was never a great fan of New Age music, but it's probably telling that my favorite Windham Hill musician is William Ackerman, who does a sort of ambient/folk guitar thing. His early records Passage and Past Light remain faves.

I like Ackerman, too,but I wouldn't apply the word ambient to his music. What I know of it is definitely compositions,little instrumental songs without words. My favorite of all those Windham Hill artists,or at least favorite album, was Alex di Grassi, an album called Causeway. Somewhat similar to Ackerman but more complex. Definitely not ambient.

Right, not really ambient, but the type of music that works equally well as "wallpaper" or as music one can actually consciously pay attention to. I think a lot of baroque music kind of works like that, actually, and of course that's far from "ambient."

Yes, you can use almost any kind of music that's fairly uniform in texture and volume that way. That reminds me of an interview I read with Robbie Robertson many years ago. He was talking about taking time off from touring and recording and said he wasn't even listening to music, "just stuff you don't really have to listen to, like opera."

Grumpy mentioned music heard at massage places and the like. Judging by the stuff I used to see offered at eMusic, there is a sort of very low-grade subgenre of ambient music, or maybe ambient sound, that's meant for spas and yoga salons (or whatever the right word for a place where they do yoga is). I think that's more or less just manufactured.

One cool thing about the best ambient, like Music for Airports, is that if you turn it up to a decent volume and really listen, especially with headphones, you hear all sorts of little details that you could easily miss or ignore.

There's tons and tons of stuff like this:

Just listened to some of that first part of Music for Airports. Way too intrusive on my subconscious, or something. :) Also made me think of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the dying watching movies in Soylent Green.

"Way too intrusive on my subconscious..." Hmm, can you elaborate on that?

Sorry -- a very imprecise way to express it. It's just that the music makes me feel it's aiming at a place deep within me, tapping into primal stuff. That's imprecise as well, isn't it, but best I can do. Maybe more a sign of my own nuttiness than anything else. :)

Eno would probably be pleased.

Once when I was playing some kind of ambient music at work the woman in the next office stuck her head in and said "Does that music change your brain waves?"

That's getting there -- very good way to put it.

I think she was disappointed. Maybe wanted to try it herself. I vaguely remember that there was some sort of fad years ago, maybe back in the '70s, about some sort of brain-wave feedback thing that was supposed to make you calm or something.

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