Uplifting Lifts: The story behind Elevator Music

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

In his iconic single, Rap God, the self-proclaimed hip-hop deity Eminem spits out a verse full of ‘lyrics coming at you in supersonic speed’. He ends by saying, ‘I make elevating music, you make elevator music’.

This snide reference to other MC's in his opinion just making elevator music clearly indicates his disdain for it. However this begs the question, what’s bad with making music for elevators?

Eminem with comedian Guillermo in an Empire State Building lift (Image Credits- Jimmy Kimmel Live)

An annotation by the lyrics web site Genius observes Eminem’s line as ‘Elevator music is the unchallenging background music you hear inside store elevators. Many people dislike this music. Nobody listens to it on purpose, just by accident!’. Usually, in movies, there have been scenes where music in elevators has been used for comic relief and often the music playing actually feels like the most irrelevant piece of music.

Image Credits- Cartoon Stock

But when did this whole deal with musical elevators start?

As the second half of the 19th century dawned upon the First World, elevators were seen as deadly and scary technology. Joseph Lanza, the author of the book Elevator Music, writes that ‘Next to roller coasters and aeroplanes, elevators were perceived by many as floating domiciles of disequilibrium, inciting thoughts of motion sickness and snapping cables.’

Maybe the classical or jazz music in elevators helped fight the fear of ascending or descending in a metal box. Some state that America’s Empire State Building which was once the tallest structure of its time, had the first musical lifts.

Maybe, the actual purpose of playing music in old elevators was to keep passengers entertained as they moved from floor to floor at a snail’s pace. Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Historical Society, supports this theory.

In fact, from the 1920s, a company called Muzak usually produced music for lifts, followed by retail stores and other similar places that would need some generic instrumental tunes. The brand was so popular that to date, many consider elevator music synonymous to Muzak.

Funnily, last year, Eminem had another tryst with this music, that too in the towering Empire State Building. In an exclusive performance of his song Venom for Jimmy Kimmel Live, he raps his verses energetically and then slows down to reach the building’s top in a lift.

As he patiently waits to reach his floor, an ‘elevator-style cover’ of Eminem plays in the background. Whats also ironic is that elevator music started to beat boredom but is now mocked as the most boring and personality less form of music!

Shaurya Singh Thapa