Making "Muzak" Natural: The Sounds of Life, Death, and the Lyre Bird in the Built Environment, 1950-1970

Alexandra Hui, Mississippi State University

Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 6:30pm

Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington, DE)

Copeland Room
Hagley Library
298 Buck Road
Wilmington, DE 19807
This paper is drawn from a chapter in Alexandra Hui's planned monograph, Sonifiying Space: A history of the science of background music, 1900–2000. The book explores the co-development of modern, technology-dependent background music (a.k.a. environmental music, elevator music, Muzak) and new forms of listening actively cultivated to experience this music. It asks two interrelated questions: how communities’ understandings of their environment change and how new forms of listening come into being.
The paper for the Hagley seminar focuses on three examples of these technological creations: mortuary music, environmental sounds, and nature recordings. These all reveal an understanding of sound that was simultaneously natural and highly constructed, whether the RCA Victor Organ Type Sound System in a funeral home, or an LP full of sounds of white collar office devices, or the sounds of night descending in the Sapsucker Woods. Indeed, it was through these sounds of death, life, nature, and the urban soundscape, that Americans naturalized their understandings of the built environment.
Commentator: David Suisman, University of Delaware
The seminar is open to the public and is based on a paper that is circulated in advance. Those planning to attend are encouraged to read the paper before coming to the seminar. Copies may be obtained by emailing Carol Lockman,
Reception at 6 p.m., seminar begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. in the Copeland Room of Hagley’s library building.