"This is really the kind of music one isn't supposed to hear, the sort that helps to fill the empty spots between pauses in a conversation." Composer Aaron Copeland
Oh my. I'm so embarrassed. I never thought I'd say this. Not in a million year. Not as a serious musician. Certainly not as a science-based Learnertainer. But here it is ... nevertheless ... I love Muzak.
To explain my statement, we have to start at the beginning: silent films.
A true silent film is a jarring experience because of its lack of warmth. Camouflaging this silence is one of the important functions of film. Nearly every film features music over a third of its length. And in a Hollywood environment where moneymaking sequels matter more than quality, many mediocre films are made palatable by the addition of popular music. It is also safe to state that like dynamics hold true in real life. We have proof: Muzak
In 1922 Brigadier General George Owen Squier noticed this function of film music and decided to apply music to the silences of daily life. In the process he founded the Muzak company. His idea worked so well that an estimated 100 million people will be exposed to Muzak on the same day you read this.
One of the reasons for Muzak's success has to do with its pacing. Muzak selections are carefully matched to the hour of the day. Peppy melodies and hyper rhythms in the morning, light pop at lunchtime, mellow songs for mid-afternoon, classic pop at dinnertime and higher energy selections in the evening.
Additionally, all of Muzak's programming is arranged into quarter-hour blocks. The music is designed to match the energy cycles of listeners. At the beginning of a programming block, the music starts softly. From that point forward, it builds until, at fifteen minutes, it reaches its peak in volume. It then starts over, repeating this cycle every fifteen minutes.
Muzak's researchers state that this "Stimulus Progression" effectively counters worker fatigue. Various studies have validated that the Stimulus Progression in work environments:
Enhances concentration; and
Muzak's research even suggests that likeability is largely irrelevant, that it is possible to achieve increased productivity by playing music that ignores employee preference but focuses on the function the music is designed to serve.
Trainers, presenters and educators obviously do not want Muzak playing throughout a learning event. Movies don't feature continuous background music either. Instead, program leaders can selectively use music to camouflage silence at specific moments in any program. What follows are some examples that make you too love Muzak.
Play music when many people converse at once The noise made by large groups tasked with talking simultaneously can be deafening. Music can take the edge off of the sound. In a crowded room, music acts much like lemon to a plate of fish. Lemon, when sprinkled on the fish, cuts the odor. Music, when played softly in the background of discussion periods, cuts the noise.
Play music during small group discussions In small group discussions learners who are sitting near, and in some cases, next to each other are placed in different groups. Music, when used in these situations, functioning as a masking agent, adds a layer of sound that prevents learners from eavesdropping on other conversations and allows them to focus on their own group.
Play music during solo reflection periods When learners are asked to reflect on a subject any sound can disrupt their thoughts. Much as silent film theaters used house bands to cover up crowd and projector noise, light, slow, reflective music serves as a buffer between individual coughs and whispers. An additional bonus is the fact that slow, reflective music helps learners think.
Play music during creative visioning exercising New Age or Impressionistic music, used during brainstorming exercises, provides learners with musical anchors they can attach their thoughts to.
Play music while practicing repetitive tasks Repetitive tasks are made easier by music. If you exercise you may already know this to be true. Our bodies have a rhythm. Our heart beats, we breathe in and out and our blood pulses, all in time. Some amazing feats have been accomplished by tying tasks to music. African slaves, for instance, used work chants to survive the backbreaking work of picking cotton. The workmen who built the transcontinental railroad sang as they drove spikes into the rails. The soldiers who fought for our freedom sang as they marched hundreds of miles.
If your trainees are required to learn repetitive tasks, music with a steady beat can help. Studies demonstrate that music helps learners:
Repeat monotonous tasks with higher levels of interest
Elongate attention spans;
Improve task concentration;
Increase task speed; and
Simply select a piece of music that pulses at a speed complementary to the task at hand.
Play music during breaks The lack of an audio signal during breaks can undercut any comfortable atmosphere you may have built. Instead of allowing this silence to linger, select and play music appropriate to the instruction that just occurred. If your learners are all keyed up and you feel the need to calm them down, play some slower, reflective music. If the just ended segment required intense concentration, play up-tempo music to help your learners unwind. As the break reaches its halfway point, switch music. Play selections more appropriate to the segment you will soon begin. One minute before the break ends, turn the music up to indicate that the learners should return, and then, turn it off when you are ready to start.
Play music during reviews Giorgi Lozanov, the father of Suggestopedia and accelerated learning created what he called concerts. Lozanov believed that suggestion is more easily accepted when a student is deeply relaxed, both mentally and physically. To achieve this level of relaxation in his learners, his reviews would include deep breathing exercises, a comfortable and relaxed position, a calm, pleasant atmosphere, a background of classical music, and the recitation of critical information.
Lozanov would recite, or have the trainees recite the key learning points accompanied by slow Baroque or early Classical period music, pulsing at a rate parallel to that of the human heart, around 60 to 80 beats per minute. By placing key review points into a PowerPoint presentation timed to music, any trainer can use this relaxation technique.
As the applications listed above suggest, Muzak, drawing inspiration from film music, has pointed the way towards effective learning. So, reluctantly, in spite of the way Muzak annoys me, I must state unfortunately I love Muzak.
Lenn Millbower, BM, MA, the Learnertainment® Trainer is an expert in applying show biz techniques to learning. He is the author of the ASTD Info-Line, Music as a Training Tool, focused on the practical application of music to learning; Show Biz Training, the definitive book on the application of entertainment industry techniques to training; Cartoons for Trainers, a popular collection of 75 cartoons for learning; Game Show Themes for Trainers, a best-selling CD of original learning game music; and Training with a Beat: The Teaching Power of Music, the foremost book on the application of music to learning. Lenn is an in-demand speaker, with successful presentations at ASTD 1999-2005 and SHRM 2006; a creative and dynamic instructional designer and facilitator formally with the Disney University and Disney Institute; an accomplished arranger-composer skilled in the psychological application of music to learning; a popular comedian, magician and musician; and the president of Offbeat Training®, infusing entertainment-based techniques into learning to keep 'em awake!