Must we have music with everything?

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”.




  1. OH MY! This was my rant in progresss…

    Music, Music Everywhere, but not a spot to Think
    (or Whence is that Awful Muzak Flowing?)

    It’s three weeks before Christmas and I’ve just landed in Boston after an 8-hour flight from London,
    the whirr of the jet-engines and the rush of the air past the body of the plane still ringing in my ears.
    I’m tired, jet-lagged and even though it is only 2pm there are two things I crave – my bed and SILENCE.

    But the latter is hard to come by – I queue at Immigration to be asked the same pointless questions I’ve
    been asked a hundred times over where I’m assaulted with the quasi-patriotic orchestral music accompanying
    the “Welcome to the USA” video on an endless, endless loop. There is Muzak bubbling away with light,
    tuneless saxophone and tinny rhythm section as you walk through the arrivals hall and wait at baggage reclaim.
    The hotel lobby has some kind of non-descript string music playing; the Starbucks in the lobby going is full-pelt
    with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (not from inside MY skull, sunshine) and in the lifts we’re
    magically transported back to the 1980s with low-level Level 42 (were they even that big over there?).

    If you stand in one spot in the lobby you’ll find you are at the confluence three streams of music as the lift door
    opens – the cacophony is hideous. Being an engineer, I try to find the null-spot where all they cancel each other

    Try complaining to the headquarters about this maelstrom of music and chances-are you’ll be left hanging-on the
    phone listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 whilst being told that YOU are very important (and
    therefore by definition everyone else hanging on is also very important so really you’re not any more or less
    important than the others so why do they bother getting your hopes up?)

    This is not music for its artistic purpose – this is music to fire the endorphins in the same cynical fashion that
    supermarkets squirt the scent of baking bread into the air. It is being used to relax you so you don’t lose the
    plot as you wait at reception; make you buy a sticky-sweet Christmas-themed drink at Starbucks; leave you
    feeling happy-and-bouncy that you are finally heading to your room in the lift.

    But like a bad smell, this low-level music-as-wallpaper is irritating in the extreme and I squirm to avoid it.
    Now I suspect that in common with any serious music-lover, I cannot ever think of music as “simply background.”
    If music of any type is on, I HAVE to stop; I HAVE to listen. It doesn’t wash-over unnoticed – it captures me.
    Plus we devalue the work of the creative mind which put this music together by pulling out Bach’s Best Bits (or
    Level 42’s come to think of it). Music, all music, is multi-layered, demanding analysis and attention. Playing
    one small section of a work conceived as a whole is as pointless from randomly taking one paragraph from the
    middle of a novel simply because the words “read” nicely. Isolated, they are meaningless, bereft of context.

    SNCF realised this a few years ago with their rather musical “tonalité” they play at the start of station
    announcements. It’s been written out in musical form “Do, Sol, La, Mi,” and constructed into a full work by
    Michaël Boumendil which conveys the sense of travelling through the French countryside and cities, across
    the tracks and points, arriving at your destination to be signalled by the next tonalité SNCF. It is subtle, artistic,
    conveys a story – it is built for listening to as a whole work.

    I want my music to be a journey – I want to understand the full range of emotions the composer was trying to
    convey. I want the combination of THIS artist in THIS venue with THIS audience at THIS specific time to
    combine to make it a unique experience.

    My journey does not need this music now.

  2. The dreadful “music” in programmes like Springwatch actually drowns out completely the song of the birds, the sound of the wind, running water, and too many other natural sounds to mention. Sheer madness!

  3. I had no problem with the Schubert in The Favourite. It seemed appropriate to the action (from memory) and didn’t grate at all. It seems to me that the people who actually recognized the Schubert and Schumann in the sound track would be the very same people to whom it wouldn’t make a difference, but t I guess I’m wrong there…
    Or are we seeing a bit of the rather sad one-upmanship that the Twittersphere is so famous for? As in, “Hoi POLLOI didn’t recognize that there was NON-PERIOD music in The Favourite, but I, clever clogs that I am, DID”? (Not cynical about the Internet! No, not me!!)

    Thanks, BTW, for pointing out the ubiquity of indifferent music in public places these days. It’s often very irritating.

Comments are closed.