Guest post by Michael Johnson

Out of nowhere this morning, the ghost of John Cage and his creative genius visited me at a supermarket in Bordeaux, France. I was so glad to be back in touch with the old goat. It had been a while.

But along with a thousand other shoppers jostling for Yuletide goodies, I was being hammered by “Christmas Music”, a Muzak track of Jingle Bells and Silent Night (in English) as I emptied my wallet to bring champagne and foie gras to my home.

Suddenly I heard John whisper in my ear, “Tell them to play 4’33”.” Aha, I thought, that’s the perfect adaptation of a contemporary classic with the trashy earworms we must abide year after year after year. Is there any tune as trite as “Silent Night”? “Adeste Fidelis” and — oh no — “Little Drummer Boy” ! Are there any songs as perfect for the fine hand of John Cage? Silence was his byword, his bible, his autobiography.

I have trotted around the globe for most of my life, finally landing in Bordeaux, which seemed a safe haven from tacky popular culture and seasonal music-making. But it was another disappointment a few years ago to come face-to-face with musical globalization – American tastelessness transported into the heart of Southwest France, the home of Ravel, the birthplace of the Labèque sisters piano duo, the cradle of great writing and great thinking, Mauriac, Montaigne, Montesquieu. The home of soprano Natalie Dessaye, conductor Paul Daniel, and for many years, the adopted city of Roberto Benzi.

Hélas (as the French say), the greatness of the past is being swamped by the dumber tide of the present. Those of us who yearn for a Bach cantata (why not?) cannot even switch off the trash like a smart phone, the other plague of our time. Trivality is in the air, everywhere.

It’s hard to escape the earworm at this time of year, with shopping malls and public streets bombarding us. The less you like these tired tunes, the longer they hang around in the memory cells, circling the mind like fruit flies over an orange.

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia” that these awful tunes have subverted the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively. . . “as may happen with a tic or a seizure.”

Sacks quotes a patient recalling a bout of earworms. The song “Love and Marriage” took possession of the man for ten days, leading him to desperate efforts to shut it off: “I jumped up and down. I counted to a hundred. I splashed water on my face. I tried talking loudly to myself, plugging my ears.” It finally subsided, only to return when he told Sacks about it.

Funny. That just happened to me this morning while shopping.

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

Illustration by Michael Johnson



Extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s a classical concert, so presumably the audience are there because they want to hear classical music – and yet the bar is playing “bad pop” (and those two words cover a multitude of sins!). This strikes me as a major “fail” on the part of the management of the venue – it’s also just plain dim.


Music, often bad music, is everywhere these days. We used to make jokes about “lift music” (or muzak) or “hotel lobby music”, but now it is inescapable. It’s in shops, bars, cafes, restaurants – the noise often blaring from the invisible speakers so loud as to preclude intelligent or intelligible conversation. It’s leaking tinnily out of other people’s headphones on the tube and bus. And if you dare to ask to turn it down – as I do on occasion – you are met with looks of surprise, as if to say “you don’t like it?”. Or, worst case scenario, the chef gobs in your soup in revenge for your effrontery. I have had to leave certain establishments because the “background music” (ha!) made it impossible to have an audible conversation with the person I was meeting.

Most of this “music” is repetitive, musically simplistic (4 or 5 harmonies at most), and full of banal platitudes. But endure it we must, because it seems that some of us are afraid of silence. (Pause for a moment to consider the composer John Cage’s thoughts on “silence”…..)

Even the bank which I use on London’s High Street Kensington has been invaded by bad pop, the “music” regularly interrupted by the inane gabbling of some fifth-rate “DJ”. Why do we need such “noise” in the bank? Do those that select this noise think it will enhance our “banking experience”? In most cases, it makes me want to run screaming onto the busy street. It is a relief, therefore, to enter High Street Kensington tube station, where classical music plays, as background music, just audible enough to identify Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto or a Handel aria as I make my way down to the westbound platform.

Most of the time I – and I suspect quite a few others – would happily go about my business uninterrupted by bad pop or “background music”. I don’t need a soundtrack to my transactions at the bank (though if one were to choose something appropriate, perhaps ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd, or Beethoven’s ‘Rage Over the Lost Penny’?); I’d like to enter a pub or cafe and hear the sound of other people talking, laughing. Going clothes shopping needn’t be like entering a discotheque (though I was pleased to have my street cred enhanced by correctly identifying ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers in Top Shop recently – the (very young) assistant said “this is nice, what is it?”. Fortunately, I resisted the urge to sound like Michael Winner – “It’s from the 80s, dear”.

Don’t get me wrong: I love music, especially classical music, and most especially live classical music. I enjoy music in the right context and I’ll happily sit and listen to a radio broadcast, CD or live concert for several hours, uninterrupted, given half the chance. But out of context it can grate and intrude, especially when the music being played is someone else’s selection, a playlist made to someone else’s taste. Better in those circumstances to turn it off.

Because my main activity is playing the piano and teaching other people how to play the piano, when I am not engaged in that, I tend not to listen to the radio or music via CDs or a streaming service. Instead, I like to hear the sounds of my house quietly creaking and stretching, the cat mewing, the birds in the garden, the wind in the trees in my garden, the chatter of my neighbour’s grandchildren. These sounds are far more enjoyable and genuine that anything blaring out of a loudspeaker in a shop or cafe.

Pipe Down – the campaign for freedom from piped music

A Point of View: Why it’s time to turn the music off

Pop Music is Literally Ruining Our Brains