Muzak, the background noise pumped into public places, such as hotel lobbies, stores, and elevators, has long been known as a way to influence behavior. Music with a fast tempo has been shown to boost workers’ productivity (“Inspiration is all about emotion,” according to management experts INNOVA Group), while slower music encourages shoppers to take their time.
Yowei Shaw, a freelance public radio reporter and producer in Philadelphia, has been trying to engage people in public spaces through her residency with the Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab. She wanted to use Muzak to foster a sense of community among people who ride in elevators.
For her project, “Really Good Elevator Music,” Shaw asked six local musicians from Philadelphia’s Chinatown North/Callowhill neighborhood to create recordings to promote a sense of community. The collaboration resulted in a 13-track album that is playing in the elevators of the mixed-use Wolf Building throughout March.
The artists interpreted the request in different ways. Some used street sounds and interviews with local residents. They also utilized tempos, instruments, and musical keys that are more upbeat than typical elevator music. One track features a recording of eighth grade students practicing a Miley Cyrus medley for their middle school graduation.
Shaw has used surveys to get reactions to the project from the public. She has also ridden the elevators herself to gauge people’s reactions. She said responses have been mixed, but her goal was not necessarily to make everyone like the music. She wanted it to encourage conversation and interaction in a place where people usually avoid contact with each other.