Centralized Discipline / by Kiersten Nash

The New School University Center Collab studio seeks to 'employ' the creativity of New School students to design a diversity of strategies that modulate the everyday behaviors—theories in action—of the University [Center] according to the operational and ideological dictates—theories of action—of the design team, stewards of the U.S. Green° Building Council. In short, to close the system. Or enrich the ecosystem.

An interesting, albeit unexpected, precedent for this type of psychological and physiological modulation is Muzak. Yes, that seemingly banal backdrop intended to alleviate those awkward moments you experience in the elevator. Actually, Thomas Edison was one of the first to enter this playground in 1915. Using tinfoil and his trusty phonograph, Edison conducted a series of experiments or 'mood tests' in an effort to understand which musical compositions could veil 'noise' and boost morale. Edison charted emotional fluctuations of individuals as they listened to a diversity of compilations. But, it was U.S. Army technocrat, George Owen Squier that revolutionized the mechanization of sound and, ultimately, the world of tele-communications with his innovations “in the art of electronic signalling.” 

 Squier, George O., Joseph O. Mauborgne, and Louis Cohen.  Electrical Signaling Patent 1.641.648:   Sheet 1 of 2.  06 Sept. 1927.

Squier, George O., Joseph O. Mauborgne, and Louis Cohen. Electrical Signaling Patent 1.641.648: Sheet 1 of 2. 06 Sept. 1927.

 Squier, George O., Joseph O. Mauborgne, and Louis Cohen.  Electrical Signaling Patent 1.641.648:   Sheet 2 of 2.  06 Sept. 1927.

Squier, George O., Joseph O. Mauborgne, and Louis Cohen. Electrical Signaling Patent 1.641.648: Sheet 2 of 2. 06 Sept. 1927.

Squier's reign as Chief Signal officer was dedicated to increasing office productivity. To this end, he endeavored to mimic the soothing benefits of the pre-industrial 'song.' Essentially, Squier simulated the sonic virus we've come to affectionately refer to as the earworm. However, Squier wasn't content with merely composing the 'song,' he wanted to deliver the message. From Squier's drafting table to offices around the nation, the multiplexing system effectively “centralized transmissions within a… system of stimulus codes.”

In 1922, the North American Company, a Cleveland-based utilities conglomerate purchased the rights to Squier’s patents. Together they formed Muzak (originally Wired Radio, Incorporated) to expand electronic transmission via ‘canned music.’* With the development of this new technology (essentially the Muzak radio station) prolific band leader Ben Selvin began prototyping the Hawthorne Effect. In attempt to actively engage workers' attention, Selvin distributed familiar scores according to the ebb and flow of productivity in each work space. "In industrial settings, where loud noises make traditional background music hard to hear, Muzak turned to sounds with a greater penetration, favoring percussion instruments and melodies with more distinct timbres.” The result? An 88% reduction in absenteeism.

Muzak then proceeded to combine the Hawthorne effect with another popular theory developed by two 19th century scholars, William James and Carl Lange. After two decades of researching environmental mediation and biofeedback, the James-Lange theory confirmed that music
does affect human physiology. It stimulates human breathing, metabolism, muscular energy, pulse, blood pressure, as well as internal secretions (a precursor to David Rudrauf and Antonio Damasio's studies on the biological mechanism of subjectivity and feeling). This research led to the production of Muzak's most elaborate program, Stimulus Progression or Earworm: The Album. Designed by Muzak executive Don O’Neil and implemented by Burris-Meyer and Cardinell, Stimulus Progression composed music in order to offset worker fatigue, also known as the industrial efficiency curve. Researchers distributed surveys charting individual mood on a scale ranging from “gloomy, minus three” to “ecstatic, plus eight.” Moods were charted to reveal the median temperament amongst workers. This data was then plotted and incorporated into a larger program which segmented the average workday into fifteen-minute increments throughout which tailored melodies were employed to counterbalance workers’ mood swings and peak productivity periods. The capacity of Muzak’s trademark innovation to “combat monotony and offset boredom at precisely those times when people are most subject to such onslaughts” was meticulously measured and charted by the Lever Brothers, Fairfield University’s language laboratory, and the U.S. Army Engineering Lab (a collaboration that would probably please Rosabeth Moss Kanter). This research illustrated that Muzak's Stimulus Progression program affectively “increased office output, reduced stress, lessened costs, enhanced worker concentration, and improved personnel morale.”

Care to give it a go?

Muzak. Stimulus Progression albums. YouTube.


* Interesting side note: Squier had a difficult time transitioning his communication endeavors from the public to private realm. Squier sued AT&T after the conglomerate acquired his patents and inaugurated the electronic revolution, claiming that a portion of the proceeds should be allocated to the public. After an initial decision, the case was overturned. A list of private benefactors was amended to include the National Academy of Sciences.