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Poised to probe for plaque, Frances Tatsch works to the beat of Muzak at Dr. Shelly Nagle's office. Programmed music is designed to make the experience of shopping and working more enjoyable, or in the case of dental work, to distract us. Photo by Phil Houseal

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by Phil Houseal
March 26, 2008

There I was, laid out during my semi-annual trip to the dentist.

Feet up. Head back. Light on my face. Paper bib fastened to my shirt front to catch the drool. Frances Tatsch, the hygenist, probed into my gums for plaque.

My face was in a grimace, hands clenched, and my feet... were tapping. Tapping along with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. I thought, thank you, Shelly Nagle, DDS, for piping Muzak brand music through those Bose speakers in the ceiling.

"We find it helps relax the patients," Tatsch explained. "We like it, too."

Muzak is the butt of jokes, the bane of music lovers. Derisively dubbed "elevator music," the genre makes Burt Bacharach tunes even blander.

In a weird way, achieving Muzak infamy used to be a rite of passage. Long ago I played in a band with an original member of Pure Prairie League. He knew the band had "made it" when he heard a version of their hit song "Amy" rendered into Muzak on an elevator.

In fairness, Muzak has changed. The songs used to emanate from a stack of records stashed in a closet. Now they beam via satellite in categories called Funkytown, Moodscapes, Groove Zone, and Shag Beach. They no long "re-record" hits and instead select from 1.5 million existing recordings.

And now stores have many sources of music, including Internet radio and personal sound systems. As research, after leaving the dentist, I went from business to business to discover which stores played music, what style they played, and who controlled it.

Courthouse - No music (No kidding? Could paying property tax be more fun accompanied by Taxman?)

HEB - Country music on this day. I asked at information who chose the music, and they referred me to the regional spokesperson in San Antonio. I left several messages and never heard back from her. I guess music choice is proprietary information for the grocery store giant.

West Feeds - I was somewhat surprised to hear no music while I picked up goat feed. You'd think they would throw on some Willie or George.

WalMart - Canned music. After my HEB stonewall, I didn't even try to find out who picked the music there.

Hill Country Dry Cleaners - "Whoever gets to work first," the clerk replied when I asked who chose the music. "The kids like hip hop, I like country." She must have been first that morning, because country was playing.

Guaranty Bank - "Muzak," the young teller answered. The Eagles were playing. "This is the Oldies channel," she explained. Sigh.

Snippers - "I change the stations," the manager told me. She pointed to one of her stylists. "I let her pick the station before and it scares me."

McDonalds - "Whatever we pick," the assistant manager told me. That was a surprise. I would have thought McDonalds would have prescribed McMusic.

After several weeks of paying attention, I can conclude that here in south Texas there is a preference for country, with classical a close second.

The point of canned music is to encourage shoppers to remain in the store longer and put them in a buying mood. In reality, if the store happens to be playing a style you don't enjoy, it can make the shopping experience miserable. Of course for many of us, shopping is pretty miserable to begin with.

If you can't stand the music, there may be an answer. When I had my root canal, Dr. Schmidt let me bring my own player and headphones so I could listen to Bach while he drilled. I hardly felt the pain.

Of course the laughing gas helped. But I don't think they'll be piping that into stores anytime soon.