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Muzak and the Beatles

This page has two main purposes and a tertiary purpose. The first is to put in a good word for Muzak and the similar beautiful music radio format. (When I say "Muzak" in this page, I am referring only to the well-known light, instrumental music Muzak was associated with for decades.) It's apparently far too late to stir up support for their revival, so I guess this is a eulogy.

The second purpose is to reflect a bit on the importance of Muzak to the Beatle phenomenon. I'm sure most everybody would place the Beatles on a plane far above, and completely unconnected and certainly unindebted to this sort of "easy listening" or "elevator" or "wallpaper" (triple yuck) music. If you're here for the Beatle ruminations, just slide on down the page about halfway right now.

The third purpose is a somewhat therapeutic one. In my exchange of emails with the Muzak company, they responded to things I didn't say. This is a common aspect of email that exasperates me and I'd probably lose my marbles if I couldn't unload on one friend or another, "This is what I said, and this is what I got back!!!" I mean, does anybody really read, or does everybody just pluck out a few key words and make something mean what he wants it to?


So, what kind of person would admit to the world he likes Muzak and the similar "beautiful music" radio format? Dunno, I guess the same sort of person who doesn't buy into Big Bangs and black holes and Darwinian evolution. Be honest now, did that pleasant-sounding stuff they used to play in your grocery store really send you screaming for the exits? Grocery stores now play croaky-throated popsters - and I know I'm not the only one tormented by it. (For the record, I think the last beautiful music-style Muzak I heard in a grocery store, or anywhere, was in early 2002.)

I'd argue that Muzak and beautiful music arrangements of familiar pop songs were often very imaginative, and used a much wider and more interesting palette of tone colors than either pop or classical music. You might get harmonicas or banjos or steel drums or harps or accordions or Jew's harps or you name it. In spite of nobody admitting they liked it, and all the jokes and insults, studies showed that it boosted people's moods.

Well, you don't have beautiful music to kick around anymore, and the world becomes coarser day by day - maybe in part because beautiful music is gone. I hope you're all happy.

In the email exchange below, I had hoped to interest Muzak in selling its product to radio stations. It wasn't clear to me - and still isn't - why that wouldn't make them wealthy beyond words. (About the first paragraph below: I eventually got a tape player, and then a cd player, in my car, and for all intents and purposes stopped playing the radio.)

Subject: muzak on the radio - please!!!
From: Donald Sauter
Date: Aug 23 1999

Dear Muzak,

This is a begging letter, make no mistake about it. What can you/we/I do to get Muzak on the radio? Is there something that makes that impossible? I live in the Washington, D.C. area and there must be at least 40 stations on the FM dial. I sample them all on my car radio - and it can't be more than twice a month when I actually find a song I'll let play to the end. To be honest, I don't know why I put myself through this audio torture.

On the other hand, I am often frozen in my tracks by your music in my local supermarkets. Examples include "Squeezebox", "Spirit In The Sky", "What Is And What Should Never Be", "God Only Knows", "No Matter What", "Not A Second Time", "Mayor Of Simpleton", "I Know There's An Answer"...

WHY CAN'T I HAVE MUZAK ON MY RADIO??? Is it you, or is it the radio stations, that won't allow it?

I grew up with the Beatles, I dug punk rock, and... I listened to "Beautiful Music" WGAY in D.C. I'm not even old and everything on the radio nowadays makes me want to puke. Can you imagine what it's like for mature adults - to say nothing of the "elderly"???

Thanks for considering doing whatever you can do to at least allow the possibility.

Donald Sauter


Subject: Re: muzak on the radio - please!!!
From: (feedback)
Date: Aug 24 1999

Thanks for your interest in Muzak! Unfortunately for you, though, we are only licensed to supply music for business use. Our broadcasts are via direct broadcast satellite signal that can only be decoded by special receivers so there is no way for you to listen via a radio. Good luck in your search for the perfect radio station!

Kristi Guin
Marketing Representative


Subject: muzak on the radio
From: Donald Sauter
Date: Sep 1 1999

Dear Kristi Guin,

Thanks for your friendy response to my note asking about getting Muzak on radio. I usually get testy little one-sentence negative responses - if anything at all - to my efforts to make the world a little better place.

At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I thought a clarification was needed. I wasn't asking why I can't receive Muzak's signal on my stereo. I was hoping to stir up some interest in the idea of getting Muzak broadcast by conventional radio stations.

It sounds like a win-win-win idea to me. (That would be Muzak, the radio station, and music lovers.) You say, "we are only licensed to supply music for business use", but aren't radio stations businesses? Is there some fundamental law of nature that makes it impossible for you to accept their money?

Or can it be possible that no radio station has ever, or would ever, consider broadcasting Muzak? There was a time just a few years ago when the number one station in every area was a "beautiful music" station. That's very similar to muzak. (There aren't many experts like me who can tell the difference!) Sure, beautiful music and Muzak are the butt of all the jokes - but people listened to them and obviously enjoyed it.

Does this make sense? In Washington D.C., the perennial No. 1 station, beautiful music WGAY, slipped to No. 2. I suppose No. 2 wasn't good enough, so they panicked and changed their format - and kept sinking until they went out of sight. Why not just go back to beautiful music?

All I'm hoping for is that someone pass a note to somebody with a bit of clout at Muzak saying that there is at least one poor soul out there who desperately wants to hear muzak on the radio in his home and car. And I'll bet the bank there's millions more.


Donald Sauter


Subject: Re: muzak on the radio
From: (Chuck Walker)
Date: Sep 1 1999

Dear Mr. Sauter,

I thought I'd respond and try to clarify a misconception about Muzak. First Muzak is not a type of music. Muzak is the brand name of our company. Secondly, Muzak's Audio Architecture is provided on a subscription basis to our clients in a wide variety of formats including dance styles, urban, country and adult programs. Providing the service via commercial broadcast (radio) would not be in our best interests (if they can get it free - why pay us?) Universal records has released some of our recordings recently. They are available at your favorite record store.
Muzak LLC
Chuck Walker, Licensing Administrator
2901 Third Ave. Suite 400
Seattle, WA 98121
206-256-2372 206-256-2592 FAX


Subject: muzak on the radio
To: (Chuck Walker)
From: Donald Sauter
Date: Sep 2 1999

Dear Chuck Walker,

Thanks a million for taking the time to respond to my suggestion about getting Muzak on the radio. Please don't feel any obligation to respond to this. No doubt everything I say is either confused, or can be shot down in a moment. Anyhow, if Muzak gets on the radio one day, I'll find out about it.

Yeah, I'm sort of aware that Muzak offers a variety of products. All I know it for, though - and I think this is true for most people - is very pleasant instrumental arrangements of generally well-known songs. Last week in the grocery store I heard what I call "a muzak version" of "Sweetheart Like You", originally by Bob Dylan. I was stunned. This example, along with many others, make my grocery store more "progressive" than any of the 40 stations on my radio dial in Washington D.C.

You explain that it is not in your best interests to let Muzak go out over commercial broadcast. "If they can get it for free, why pay us?"

My response, probably very dumbheaded, is that customers who buy it from you directly would get it commercial free. Moreover, businesses that play radio stations have to pay ASCAP, and (if I understand this correctly) Muzak would then be paid its share by ASCAP, or some collection agency.

I also suppose that your price scale depends on the size of the business or number of listeners. So a radio station with 40,000 listeners would pay 10,000 times as much as a doctor's office with 4 people in the waiting room.

Anyhow, it's hard for me to imagine that there can be financial reasons for not making something that's very popular as universally available as possible. I can't imagine an analogous situation in the pop music, or movie, or book publishing industries.

Thanks for listening. No need to respond.

Donald Sauter


I'll finish up this part of the discussion with a letter to the Washington Post, from May 2001. It's not about beautiful music per se, but it got all my sympathy. The last sentence still brings a tear to my eye.

Bring Us the Big Bands

I want to thank Frank Ahrens for his April 17 Radio Listener column [Style]. It seems a real tragedy that with all the hundreds of stations spewing music and talk over the airwaves they cannot allow one station providing such pleasure to the hordes of us who dearly love the old big bands and singers with their sophisticated, intelligent and perfect lyrics.

I miss my music so much. I wish there were a possibility of having a station devoted, like public tv, to noncommercially dictated music, supported by our contributions that would keep our wonderful heritage of 1920s-through-1950s music alive.

As it is, I have half a dozen radios in my house that will never be turned on again.

Phyllis B. Stohl
McLean, Virginia

The Beatles' debt to Muzak

The second reason for this page was to put in a good word about Muzak and beautiful music versions of Beatle songs, specifically. Besides generally sounding great, these versions of Beatle songs made my heart swell with pride because they were heard and enjoyed by everybody, young and old, from all walks of life. People who never bought a Beatle record or tuned into a pop music station on the radio heard more music composed by the Beatles than by any other composer, popular or classical - bar none. This included old fogeys and wet blankets who would pretend they'd never heard of a drummer named "Ringo" or a song called "I Want To Hold Your Hand". (I've met dozens of 'em, which is no surprise, really. It's just the main purpose of human existence in action - to ruin anybody's fun who enjoys something, especially if he has actually devoted time and effort to it.) Yes, they all heard Beatle music without knowing it and, moreover, with undeniable pleasure; otherwise, the beautiful music stations and grocery stores would have gotten complaints or lost business.

This was a crucial point in my argument that the Beatles were the "greatest" pop music phenomenon. Sure, I'd have no ground to stand on arguing that the Beatles were "better" than Bob Dylan or Chicago or Led Zeppelin or the Monkees or anybody else. That's strictly a matter of opinion. We would need some music critic saint passing judgment from on high to decide that. But as far as "greatness" is concerned - who created more music that was heard and enjoyed by more people - there's no question. Also bound up in the "greatness" issue, I would argue, is the number of other artists who perform Beatle-composed music or who credit the Beatles as a major influence, and regular people who got involved in music because of the Beatles. There's no close second.

Many people have stuck their necks out with what I always thought was a very safe prediction - that the Beatles' music would survive hundreds of years, as the music of Beethoven and Bach and those guys has. I always figured, no sweat, Muzak and beautiful music would carry the Beatles into the upcoming centuries, and beyond. Now that those music styles have bitten the dust - for no reason whatsoever, I say - Beatle music has suffered a mighty blow. There are currently plenty of awards and tributes and glowing words in the media - the pop music industry has become quite self-congratulatory - but the omnipresence of Beatle music has fallen like a rock. It really has become very easy for the typical person to almost never hear a note of it. (I don't know, do they still use it for tv commercials?) And to think that this has happened within my own lifetime! It breaks my poor heart.

Ending on a happier note: as proof that I'm not the only one who grooved to easy listenin' Beatles, here's a thread of articles that appeared in the early days of internet discussion groups.

Message 1 in thread
From: Jonathan D. Lyness
Subject: "the sound you make is Muzak to my ears . . . "
Date: 1991-10-27 11:40:48 PST

I was waiting on line in a bank this afternoon, and I thought I heard - and sure enough, it was! - a Muzak version of John Lennon's "Love" from his 1970 Plastic Ono Band album. It wasn't bad (for a Muzak version, that is), but I was quite surprised to hear such a relatively obscure song done in Muzak! I waited around to see if the Muzak version of "Well Well Well" would follow, but no such luck. :)

Is such an occurence normal? I had always assumed that only the most popular Beatles songs were used in this manner. What are some of the most "unusual" Beatles or solo-Beatles songs that people have heard Muzakized?



Message 2 in thread
From: Steve Horvath
Subject: Re: "the sound you make is Muzak to my ears . . . "
Date: 1991-10-28 12:42:54 PST

I worked in a grocery store for a few years while going to school, and heard some really unexpected stuff on Muzak. Unfortunately, I can't remember which titles they were, but they do play some harder rock stuff that doesn't have much in the melody department. Sufferagette City, My My, Hey Hey and Aqualung come to mind. Can you imagine strings or horns doing the melody lines on those songs! There were a few tunes that really cracked me up when I could hear them real clear in the back room at 6AM crisping the romaine lettuce :-) Needless to say, just about every Beatles and much of the solo stuff have been "Muzaked."

Many people use Muzak as an insult if someone's song has been covered in that way. (As John did, even tho he's probably in the top 5 songwriters/teams that have been covered). It doesn't really mean anything since they're doing Air Supply to Zappa.

P.S. I remember reading that Jimmy Page played on some muzak sessions for money before he was a Yardbird.


Message 3 in thread
From: David Hurtle
Subject: Re: "the sound you make is Muzak to my ears . . . "
Date: 1991-10-29 06:25:56 PST

I too have worked in a grocery store for several years while going to school... I don't claim to be a Beatles expert (at least not well enough to identify every one of their songs. I was only 2 when they broke up), but I do have at least 10 Beatles CDs. The most obscure Beatles tune that seems to be out there (which isn't very obscure at all, just not a major smash hit) is You Won't See Me.

In even another article, someone mentioned that there were 34 Beatles tunes Muzakized. This could be quite true, so I'm counting them up and writing them down. I hope to post the list someday when I get them all. It may take quite some time though, I only work 2 days a week.

They tend to clump the music from the '60s all together and play it on certain days. On those days there is an average of 1 Beatles song in 4 played.

Some may say that 34 Beatles tunes muzakized is not very much compared to the number of Beatles songs. This really is an astonishing amount compared to the number of muzakized songs from other groups. It appears that The Beach Boys come in a distant second with 7 or 8 songs. The Rolling Stones have surprisingly few songs. Ruby Tuesday and Paint It Black are the only ones that come to mind.

From rereading this, it appears that I am some sort of Muzak freak. This may be true, I go bonkers on the days it's broken, and there's nothing more fun than supplying the background yells to the muzak version of Hey Jude (Jude Jude a Juda Juda Juda Juda, wow wowow) in front of a bunch of grumpy senior citizens.



I'm sure there had to more than 34 Muzak Beatle songs, although that number may have been correct for 1991. I never made a list, but some of the "obscure" ones I remember hearing were "Julia", "Another Girl" and "Golden Slumbers" - which sounded great with a second chorus right where you would expect the segue to "Carry That Weight". Incidentally, I twice heard a Muzak version of "Pepperland", the opening theme for the "Yellow Submarine" movie, composed by George Martin. It was exquisite.

The observation that non-hit songs of the Beatles were done up for Muzak should astound anyone. This is one of the most incredible things separating the Beatles from the rest of the pack. Many songs that were never even intended for the radio charts (because they only appeared on 12-inch vinyl and not 7-inch vinyl - does that make any sense to anyone???) were widely heard by the masses. Of all the thousands and thousands of other pop music acts, I challenge anyone to give even a single instance of a non-hit song receiving such treatment (Note 1.)

In 1995 I made a list of beautiful music versions of Beatle songs played on WWMD, a station from Hagerstown ("western Maryland"). WWMD mixed beautiful music with easy listening originals from various eras. I thank WWMD for giving me a few more years of beautiful music after WGAY went barmy, but I don't think they had a fraction of the music library WGAY did. (WGAY actually recorded lots of its own beautiful music! They went to London to do it. Is that pretty cool for a radio station or what?)

Here are the 33 Beatle songs I noted over a period of a few months in 1995:

A Day In The Life *
All You Need Is Love
And I Love Her
Because *
Blackbird *
Eleanor Rigby
From Me To You
Girl *
Here There And Everywhere *
Hey Jude
I'll Be Back *
I'm Happy Just To Dance With You *
I'm Only Sleeping *
If I Fell *
In My Life *
Julia *
Let It Be
Michelle *
Norwegian Wood *
Nowhere Man
P.S. I Love You
Penny Lane
She Loves You
She's Leaving Home *
Strawberry Fields Forever
The Long And Winding Road
The Night Before *
Things We Said Today *
This Boy *
With A Little Help From My Friends *
World Without Love (composed by Lennon-McCartney)

* Original Beatle song was NOT released for American radio airplay(!!!)

Listening to WWMD, it became obvious the closest competitor to the Beatles were Simon & Garfunkel. It scared me how many Paul Simon songs they played. That's what actually gave me the impetus to jot down the above and below lists. Here are the 14 Paul Simon songs heard in the same time period:

50 Ways To Leave Your Lover
59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
A Hazy Shade Of Winter
At The Zoo
Bridge Over Troubled Water
El Condor Pasa (main tune not composed by Paul Simon)
Homeward Bound
I Am A Rock
Mrs. Robinson
Red Rubber Ball (co-written by Paul Simon)
Scarborough Fair (main tune not composed by Paul Simon)
The Boxer
The Sounds Of Silence

Note that all of these Paul Simon songs chosen for beautiful music arrangements had pop chart success. Again, to drive a point home, the Beatles were the only pop music artists to break that shackle. Even though a couple of the above tunes weren't really composed by Paul Simon, it still makes for a pretty impressive 2nd place. I tip my hat to him. I suspect whoever placed third (the Beach Boys?) would have been about as distant to Paul Simon as Simon was to the Beatles.

(While I'm paying Simon a compliment here, let me also file a complaint: two of my most-despised, stupid, idiotic, cringe-inducing songs of all time are on that list. My older brother, when he was just a kid, used to demonstrate that he could make up "poims" on the spot. Say anything and then just repeat the last sound of the line in three identical nonsense syllables. Then you (woo-woo-woo), have poetry (hee-hee-hee). Great stuff, huh? And then, 8 years later, "Mrs. Robinson" comes along, and, I couldn't believe it - a fully mature, major pop artist doing the same thing! In front of the whole world! Never mind that "koo-koo kajoob" business... And a song named "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" when it only lists about 2.5 (the half being "make a new plan")!!! What kind of lousy scam is that? And don't get me started on the world's most impossible subject for a work of art of any kind: "Kodachrome". Give me a symphony on a drafting table, any day. It also always frustrated me that, even though pop music critics heard it, the general public never recognized the debt Paul Simon owed Bob Dylan. Listen to the vocals in "I Am A Rock" and "Cecilia", for example.)

Now, it's only fair to note that Simon was one songwriter, and Lennon-McCartney was two. But, having noted that, it's only fair to add in the 16 solo Beatle songs I logged during the study:

All Those Years Ago (George Harrison)
Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney)
Goodnight Tonight (Paul McCartney)
Imagine (John Lennon)
Let 'Em In (Paul McCartney)
Live And Let Die (Paul McCartney)
Love (John Lennon)
Mull Of Kintyre (Paul McCartney)
My Love (Paul McCartney)
My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)
No More Lonely Nights (Paul McCartney)
Say Say Say (Paul McCartney)
So Bad/Pipes Of Peace medley (Paul McCartney)
Starting Over (John Lennon)
With A Little Luck (Paul McCartney)
Woman (John Lennon)

If the listener (i.e., me) thought he heard a bit more Paul Simon relative to the Beatles than the ratio of songs (14 to 33) would lead him to expect, he was right. When you count the total number of songs heard, Simon came very close to half the Beatles' total (59 to 123). The explanation is that the WWMD library seems to have had more versions of certain Paul Simon songs - in particular, "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Scarborough Fair" and "El Condor Pasa" - which got treated as separate and equal songs in the rotation. In fact, even though Simon was represented by less songs than the solo Beatles (14 to 16), he got more total airings (59 to 51).

Of course, the WWMD library had multiple versions of various Beatle songs, too. One of my great radio experiences was when "Let It Be" got played twice within a space of 3 songs. The first one was a version featuring a string quartet; the second, a brass quartet. The song in the middle was a beautiful music version of Roy Orbison's "You Got It". Pretty neat 1-2-3 line-up, eh?

Sorry, but you'll never have a chance to hear something like that yourself. And that's what you all get for bad-mouthing beautiful music.

1. Whoops, it occurred to me that I can think of one example myself: Bob Dylan's "Wigwam". But hearing a beautiful music version of that obscure track from Dylan's oddball (but neat) "Self Portrait" album ranks up there with my most amazing radio listening experiences. So... name another example.


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Parents, if you're considering tutoring or supplemental education for your child, you may be interested in my observations on Kumon.