If we really cared about mental health, muzak would be a top priority

We are all to blame for the spread of background noise. Many feel uneasy with silence and want to be jollied along. Yet piped music is bad for our mental and physical health

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

No one is consulted. No one is held to account. No one has the authority to turn it off. How is it that muzak has slipped through every legal control?

The blame, I’d say, lies with those who are frightened of silence — with those who spend more money in shops that buzz to a friendly background hum, and laugh too loudly when all around are mute. To moderate their visceral fear of the quiet they cling to cheaply produced, intellectually demeaning and superficially comforting sub-music. Muzak comes in various forms — piped, performed live, and through other people’s headphones, when you can’t actually hear pitched sounds, only a desiccated, insistent beat.

Live it can be most memorable. Everyone must have their least favourite story. Mine is that last summer I went to stay in a hotel by the Valley of the Temples, just outside Agrigento in Sicily. In the middle distance was the perfect silhouette of the ancient Tempio della Concordia, at dinner time beautifully lit. The meal was fussy and overpriced, but one gets used to that in my profession. Behind the table was an eager young man at a Steinway, trying to play Scott Joplin’s rags. These are difficult to bring off at the best of times (which was when Joplin played them himself). Timing is of the essence, which in this case was only a fraction of the problem. Much worse was that he had misheard or mislaid the original harmonies. So I sat there, trapped, chewing, fighting every note I heard. Unlike piped music, it was an intrusion that stopped and started, was human and was applauded. It was there because before loudspeakers and recordings existed, the same nervousness with silence had afflicted those responsible for public spaces. This was the genteel, expensive version.

The website (‘The campaign for freedom from piped music’), which is trying to address the issue of noise pollution, has some interesting statistics. A survey of 115 blood donors at Nottingham University Medical School found that piped music made people more nervous before giving blood, and more depressed after giving it, than silence. It also discovered that a typical sales assistant will be forced to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ at least 300 times in the run-up to Christmas. If mental health were ever a genuine concern for employers, they should surely look at those numbers.

Yet forcing muzak-peddlers to be more accountable to their unwitting publics hasn’t worked so far. I have seen those carefully phrased little pieces of paper which people occasionally leave behind in restaurants, demanding that the horror of unwanted music be ended. But how does one ban something most people haven’t noticed, and some even like? We are all complicit. I, for example, spend long days looking for potential recording venues where the silence is absolute — in order to fill them with sound.

Towards the end of his life Sir John Tavener wrote a piece entitled Towards Silence, for four string quartets and Tibetan bowl, a meditation on the States of Dying. Nicholas Kenyon wrote of it in the Observer: ‘I know of no music that takes us quite so near to the edge of death.’ And that’s the problem with silence — it leaves us alone with ourselves. We feel uneasy and want to be jollied along. A good time equals noise. Until we seek silence for its own sake, we will have, and deserve, piped music.

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  • Mary Ann

    Background music should be banned as should earphones which let any sound escape. Peace.

    • Sue Smith

      Totally agree!!

  • IainRMuir

    I’d like to add background music, and especially mindless drumming, in TV documentaries.

  • karen richard

    In the waiting room of the clinic where I work, there is ghastly radio playing. Same in GP surgery

  • Jill

    Supermarkets in Australia all have their own radio stations. The play list is always the most annoying pop songs of the last 50 years, interspersed with ads for the supermarket. Once I was scanning my items in the self check out and a Jimmy Barnes song came on. I was so annoyed by his whining that I left without paying (by mistake). And isn’t it obvious that advertising to me when I am in the store spending my money is just insulting.
    A local chemist plays commercial radio with loud modern music and childish commentary. The average age in this chemist is about 80 and they are all shouting to be heard over the music.
    At the dentist I have requested no radio. It is bad enough having to undergo dental treatment without being tortured by crap songs and advertisements.
    If I want music I can plug in my earphones. Everyone has a device today and can be responsible for their own music.

  • Dr Bock

    As one of those deviants who enjoy being left alone with their own thoughts I can’t help but agree with the article. The most egregious examples of muzak, or just bad music played too loud, I have encountered were on a ‘sleeper’ train in Indonesia and recently when frequenting a local waffle house where the owner obviously felt that a more saccharine version of My Heart Will Go On and similar variations bore playing at volume; which caused me to comment that you were more likely to get diabetes from the ambience than from anything on the menu. Contrarily, the best sound of anywhere I have ever been was in Tokyo, where the first time I had lunch there they were playing Blue Skies, unobtrusively. It’s a shame that so much modern British pop music expresses not very interesting sentiments in a fairly ugly way, and that people in charge of public spaces feel these have to be played obtrusively. I understand that there is an element of subjectivity here, but why such aural dreck should be pumped into our ears at such volume escapes me.

    • freddiethegreat

      “Left alone with your own thoughts”. That is REALLY dangerous! No wonder they’re trying to silence you!

  • freddiethegreat

    And don’t get me started on the utter rubbish in most Churches these days – KGB. I mean CCM (an easy mistake) – “contemporary christian music”. Only the first word is true.