Stephen H. Barnes, The Hidden Messages in Music; A Social Psychology of Culture. Volume 9 from Studies on the Thistory and Interpretation of Music, Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988. 142pp. ISBN 0-88946-434-0.
Every year, innumerable music/psychology students set out to do a project concerning Muzak -- only to encounter a dearth of published factual and critical literature. Although Muzak franchises are co-operative in providing promotional literature, the pertinent analytic literature is surprisingly rarefied. As volume nine in the Edwin Mellen series on the history and interpretation of music, Professor Barnes' study of the social psychology of Muzak would seem to promise a long awaited scholarly treatment of functional music. But while this book provides some interesting insights and observations concerning Muzak, the work is more of a pop social commentary than a scholarly analysis. The book contains no footnotes, references or bibliography -- symptoms that the publishers have done the author a disservice by packaging it as a "musicological study".
The book is primarily a diatribe against the use of music as a tool of industrial management. Taken on its own merits, the book provides several worthwhile nuggets of information, including a good thumbnail sketch of Muzak's corporate history. The most interesting discussion concerns the legal basis of functional music broadcasting in the United States. In 1948, the local transit system in Washington DC began broadcasting Muzak in its buses and streetcars. Over 90% of the passengers favoured the continuation of the service, but a small but vocal group objected to this infringement on their personal space. There ensued a court battle challenging the constitutional basis for the boradcasting of music in public spaces -- a court battle which proceeded to the US Supreme Court, and which was (tragically) lost.
The book suffers from two overriding difficulties. Notwithstanding the author's objection to the purpose of Muzak, Barnes nonetheless accepts uncritically all of Muzak's claims concerning increased productivity, the effectiveness of "stimulus progression" programming, evidence against the Hawthorne effect, and so forth. There is no critical evaluation of these claims, and so one fears that the author has succumbed to the hokus-pokus of industrial marketing. In fact, this serves Barnes' purposes well, since it buttresses his sweeping claim that "Muzak affects the most hidden and powerful aspects of an individual's psyche" [p.132]'
For the music psychologist there is nothing in this book which deals with the important specifics of how music affects behavior. Nor does it appear that Barnes would be disposed to discuss such matters in any event -- since his overriding ethos is antithetical to science (a second major problem):
"The Muzak Corporation characterizes very well the scientific method which dictates that the investigators separate, analyze and categorize phenomena in order to better understand, predict, and control them. The fundamental meaning of this functional, highly rationalized music is social control. Muzak, always sparkling in the background, is a non-verbal symbol of scientific triump and authority, of technological power designed ultimately to maintain the present social order." [p.135].
It should be clear that Barnes is not simply objecting to the comandeering of empirical knowledge to serve modern forms of "Taylorism" -- i.e. musical knowledge as a tool of "labor management" in the most nefarious sense. Barnes objects to scientific rationality itself as something which is perpetually destined to serve repressive social orders. Although Barnes does not directly say so, it follows from his point of view that all individuals engaged in the empirical study of the psychology of music are unconscious servants of imperialism.
Certainly, it is important that contemporary music/psychology scholars recognize that knowledge is never neutral. More importantly, it is crucial that psychologists of music realize that it is impossible to divorce our modest understandings of how music works from aesthetic and moral judgement. Like newborn infants, new knowledge must be guided into the world rather than merely abandoned on society's doorstep. [Footnote 1] But by equating "calculation" with the ethically abhorent, Barnes tacitly dismisses the possibility of the "calculated good", and even more dangerously implies that all good is "serendipitous" -- good things happen simply by chance. There is no room in Barnes' scheme of things for the morally good use of analytic knowledge -- such as education, preventive health, or therapy.
However much the reader might share Barnes' repulsion to Muzak, ultimately, the shallow premise that "calculation" is merely a synonym for "deviousness" undermines the book's credibility.