What is corporate muzak?

Corporate muzak is a kind of music intended for commercial use, as opposed to art music, which is intended to be enjoyed for its inherent entertaining and aesthetic value. Classic examples of corporate muzak are the jingles for TV commercials or mall background music. A more modern example of muzak is the background music for online audiovisual advertising such as videos promoting a software product, for corporate presentations or tutorials, but also for government sponsored communication, to mention a few uses. “Muzak” was originally a derogatory term, implying that music designed for commercial purposes was artistically inferior to legitimate music, but over time it became a common way to refer to this branch of Corporate Communication. Since the 2000s, the line between commercially sold music such as Top 40 hits and muzak has been blurred by new practices such as producing a Top 40 hit starting from a TV commercial, but the distinction stays valid. During the golden era of TV, some legendary commercial jingles became hits in their own right, competing in popularity with the great songs on radio of the biggest acts of the time but, generally speaking, most of us don’t pay much attention to background music or anyway to music designed to underline a message or to promote a product. But this doesn’t make muzak less important, because a lot of elements that stay in the background and don’t make the receiver of the communication aware of their presence end up transferring subliminally to the brain. Hence the importance of muzak as a key part of Corporate Communication techniques, although it’s an often overlooked subject in schools and other training institutions. This short manual intends to teach the basics principles of electronic muzak production, through the use of widely available software applications running on standard computer equipment and common consumer electronic devices such as Bluetooth speakers and Android smartphones.

In order to be wanting to get into music production, it’s assumed that you have some kind of musical training, understand notes, intervals, chords, patterns, how to play a MIDI keyboard connected to a computer, how to create or tweak a synth sound and how to sequence notes on the typical piano roll feature built in the most popular DAW applications. Being able to score on a classical pentagram is a plus but not mandatory. For those who don’t know, a DAW is an acronym for Digital Audio Workstation and consists of an application which includes a MIDI enabled sequencer to record from a MIDI instrument or to score directly with a pointing device, audio recording capabilities, an audio mixer to route the different parts and instruments to faders to adjust volumes, panning and add effects such as reverb and equalization, a pattern sequencer to arrange in a longer sequence and overlay the individual patterns to create a song. This manual will refer to a very popular one called FL Studio, available for download from the producer’s website FL Studio is a commercially sold product which, as of writing, sells for 89€ in its most basic configuration, but on the other hand entitles you, once purchased, to a lifetime license with perpetual unlimited upgrades. For the techniques described in this manual, you need the Producer version which, as of writing, can be purchased for 189€.

Before getting into techniques, you need to understand a little basic theory of music related cognitive psychology and physics, in order to understand what, exactly, transfers subliminally to the brain when you are exposed to background or commercial recorded sound.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia is the ability to experience a sensorial stimulation through another sense. This includes, for instance, hearing a voice when reading a text (like Marshall McLuhan explains in his seminal essay Understanding Media), feeling the temperature or experiencing the taste associated with a color but, most of all and what concerns us for our purposes, experiencing inner sensations of space perception, image, texture, material, color, taste and smell when listening to recorded sounds. In rare cases, this is observed as an innate ability in some individuals. Most of us can only achieve this level of altered perception through the use of controlled substances such as cannabis, LSD, cocaine, MDMA and other psychotropic drugs. Goes without saying, doing drugs is never a good idea, because everyone knows drugs are addictive, bring unavoidably to abuse, which will destroy your brain cells, cause severe cognitive and behavioral impairments, which will in turn impair your ability to cope with social challenges, carry out tasks, study for school tests, drive a car, impress a potential employer at a job interview. Have no doubt that drug abuse will make you poor, unemployed, homeless, lonely and desperate. The good news is you don’t have to do drugs, because someone else did for you many years ago and shared with the world their observations, a selection of which is collected in this handbook. So, when you listen to a commercially produced song or to background music you know that a “picture”, with spatiality and perspective, images, material textures, colors, tastes and smells is transferring to your brain subliminally. Which means, although you are not aware of them, they do have an effect on your brain. In the case of muzak, if you are advertising a strawberry flavored soda and your track contains images of a strawberry, a strawberry red colored sweet liquid, a sweet smell and a glossy texture, listening to it in a resonating condition may have the effect of triggering a strawberry soda craving. Of course, people are not Watson dogs or Pavlov chickens, who could be trained for certain behaviors with a simple stimulus, so this is not a precision science. Again, the effect is achievable on an audience in a very resonating state of mind, such as the typical audience of peak time in the golden years of network TV. These days, people’s attention is split between a much greater number of information sources, such as social networks, chat programs, apps, videogames, online streaming media and it’s hard to recreate the “magic” effect of sense-making and self-validation of classic network TV. Not to mention how the wide availability of online stores killed the magic of shopping malls, which were designed in the 1950s to be the ideal haven for TV fans – TV was then a new media – and are now closing one after another all across the USA. In spite of this, being able to convey the correct sensorial and subliminal stimulations through recorded sound is still an art worth mastering, because the digital world creates lots of new occasions of exposure to recorded sound by audiences in the right listening conditions.

Read next chapters (Color, Taste and Smell, Temperature, How to Put a Brand Logo in a Track) to discover how to create these subliminal synesthetic sensorial experiences through recorded sound.