Music seems to be everywhere, from cafés, pubs and restaurants to shops, hotels and stations, leaking out of other people’s headphones and earbuds, and more recently in banks and even the waiting room of my doctors’ surgery. We joke about muzak, “lift music”, “hotel lobby music” and “musical wallpaper” – that particular genre of genre-less “easy listening” which quickly grates and irritates – but in recent years music in places where people congregate, often to socialise, seems to have become more and more intrusive.
I admit I am particularly noise-sensitive. This may be because I’m a musician, who in recent years has started to suffer from tinnitus, but I think it is more to do with the fact that when I go out to eat or to a pub or winebar I am nearly always with other people with whom I wish to socialise: “background music”, too often in the foreground these days, can be intrusive and distracting and is often so loud that it is almost impossible to have a normal conversation without shouting at one another.
The purveyors of such music (and there is a whole sector of the music industry associated with providing playlists for restaurants, bars and shops etc) and those who play it, claim that such music provides “atmosphere”. In the retail environment, music can and has been used to influence shoppers’ buying decisions, while classical music played in places where “yoofs” like to loiter is used to deter such people from hanging around.
I’m with Nigella Lawson on the subject of music in restaurants. In a recent article in The Telegraph she says that music “is utterly draining. And it drowns out the taste of the food”. It also prevents people from talking to one another during the course of a meal – and surely restaurateurs should be celebrating the convivial, social aspects of dining out? I prefer to hear the sounds of other diners, chatting, enjoying their meals and I have on occasion asked the waiting staff to turn down the music. Usually this is done swiftly and easily, without comment, but on one occasion I was rudely told by the waitress that the other diners “like the music”. I was tempted to ask the other diners whether this was the case….
Oh and don’t get me started on the subject of TV soundtracks…. There seems to be another whole arm of the music industry devoted to producing dramatic/atmospheric music to help “explain” the narrative, particularly in nature programmes featuring David Attenborough: shimmering darting motifs for shoals of shiny fish, a ponderous melody suggesting the power and weight of the elephant, chattering bird songs…. In programmes like The Great British Bake Off in the moments before the results of each round are announced the music moves from cheery to portentous, reminding us that Something Important Is About To Happen. As if we didn’t know…..! It strikes me that some programme makers think viewers cannot follow the action/content without some very obvious music to “tell the story” or “explain” what is happening.
Of course soundtracks can be original, imaginative and appropriate. It’s unusual to watch a film these days where there is no music at all – Joanna Hogg’s ‘Exhibition’ is one such example, where the lack of a soundtrack make the drama (which is itself very understated) all the more intense – and a carefully-crafted soundtrack can do a great deal to enhance the narrative and action. For me, the most recent notable example of this is the music for the film ‘The Favourite’, which was criticised by some purists for the “totally inappropriate” inclusion of music by Schumann and Schubert, which was used, very successfully in my humble opinion, to create a sense of foreboding (presumably these are the kinds of people who want music that is appropriate to the period – in fact, the soundtrack features music by Bach (J S and CPE), Handel and Vivaldi).
Go see the film and make your own judgement on this….
But in restaurants and bars, shops and public spaces, please let’s “turn it down” or “off”, and instead treat music with the respect it deserves: it is there to be listened to and enjoyed, not simply as background noise or “musical wallpaper”.