Canned muzak takes away listener choice


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Today I’m keen to vent my displeasure at the seemingly inescapable intrusion of canned music – known as muzak. Background music in public places was once described by violinist Yehudi Menuhin as ‘pollution of the mind’. Menuhin, the consummate classical soloist, led a campaign in the late 1960s to have muzak banned from shopping malls and other public spaces. Muzak is a company set up in the 1950s which produced pre-recorded background music and sold it to shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces. Muzak was sold to Westinghouse in 1981, then to the publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times and sold again to Mood Music in 2011. Although often known as ‘elevator music’ for its pernicious blandness, Muzak (the company) never actually sold it to lift companies. Muzak was so pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s it became a lower case term for light music of generic sameness).

For my part, I endured it all day every day when employed by supermarkets. There’s a lot of difference, let me tell you, between sub-consciously listening to what Alistair Cooke called ‘audible wallpaper’ while doing a 20-minute shop and being forced to listen from 8.30am to 5pm, five or six days a week. In 1975 I wrote an offensive song about muzak. I didn’t play guitar then, so a friend helped orchestrate my first foray into songwriting and performed it at the Brisbane Folk Centre. There were references to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana brass (This guy’s in love with you), Andy Williams (More), Acker Bilk (Stranger on the shore) and Henry Mancini (Moon River).

From my memory of working in retail, Muzak’s selection of the month was delivered as a reel of tape and was then wound into a reel-to-reel recorder securely locked in a box on the wall of the office.

Fast forward to 2019 and our ears are constantly assaulted by bland music, wirelessly emanating from tiny speakers tucked into the roofs of establishments ranging from coffee shops to football stadiums. I’m not privy to how the music at sports venues is broadcast, but let me give the NRL and even the Intrust Super Cup organisers a bit of feedback – and I mean that literally too.

Various codes of sport feel compelled to fill in any break in play with partial renditions of songs, at peak volume. At the Intrust Super Cup final at Redcliffe, the volume was so deafening, the choice of music (hip-hop, pop, rock, reggae) so ad hoc, that just about anyone within earshot of us began berating the invisible DJ.

The music starts when play has broken down (for an injury or a penalty), and is abruptly cut off when play resumes (just as you were getting in the groove). A snippet of Van Halen or ACDC, bless them, adds nothing to the game, especially when the music is reverberating around metal and concrete grandstands.

Mood music seems to have gone up in standard since my days of listening to Up Up and Away for the seventh time in a working day. Muzak’s 2019 owner, Mood Media, offers a wide range of genres to its clients and I have no doubt about the quality.

My main argument with unsolicited music streamed in public places is just that – it is unsolicited and, rather than put me in a good mood, it does the reverse.

We were having dinner at a city restaurant recently which streamed its own brand of muzak, distributed around a relatively small space. It was not my imagination – the volume increased as the night wore on. I was going to ask someone to turn it down (have been known to do this). But on a trip to the loo I realised the same music was being streamed through all the neighbouring restaurants.

A barista once showed me where his canned music came from – it was one of a set of CDs called Café Music. I asked him did it not get irritating for those who work there.

“After a while you don’t notice it,” he replied. And that is just the point. Mood music is in the background – able to be heard but not intended to be listened to.

George Winter, writing for the Irish Times, described his experience of ‘aural Polyfilla’ while having coffee in a shopping mall.

“Muzak pollutes the air, befouling the connections between one rational thought and another until I begin to think that it probably would be a good idea to buy a tie-rack for the cat.”

Winter recalled October 1969, when Yehudi Menuhin addressed Unesco’s International Music Council.

“Our world has become a sounding board for man-made sounds, amplified to suffuse and suffocate us,” Menuhin said, in part.

The Council had muzak in mind when it denounced “the intolerable infringement of individual freedom” and asserted “the right of everyone to silence, because of the abusive use, in private and public places, of recorded or broadcast music.”

Winter concluded with the observation that as Ireland had banned smoking in pubs, why not ban muzak too?

He cited Professor Stuart Sim’s Manifesto for Silence, where Sims comments on background music not only in malls and restaurants but in pubs.

“It is a deliberate policy on the management’s part. The noise helps to create a frenzied, over-stimulated atmosphere which promotes evermore frenzied consumption.”

Prof Sims’s 2007 manifesto, subtitled Confronting the Politics and Culture of Noise, makes an urgent demand for silence. In the introduction to his book, he sees it as a tussle between those who want more noise (as in the oft-repeated anonymous command of ‘make some noise’ when attending footie games) and those who want none.

“Lifting the ban on mobile phones on planes has opened up a new front in this conflict,” he wrote.

If you have ever been to sacred spaces like Uluru, Notre Dame, the Vatican or the ancient cathedral at Assisi, unwanted background music becomes apparent by its absence.I have oft times wondered if the people you see on trains and buses with listening buds in their ears are (a) listening to something they want to listen to or (b) shutting out the madding crowd with meditative music.It could all be completely wrong, because those on the outside cannot know what is being heard on the inside. That’s the beauty of choosing what to listen to and when.

Academic studies have been done on whether or not students write better essays when listening to music. This survey, trialled with 54 psychology students, concluded that it disrupted writing fluency, although those with music training and/or high working memory wrote better essays with longer sentences.

Likewise, studies have been done to examine the effect of background music in open plan offices (used to mask ambient sound and background conversations). Hmm, is that accountant over there listening to Céline Dion or is he wearing noise cancelling headphones?

As a songwriter, the biggest problem I have with unsolicited background music is that they never introduce or back-announce the track. So on the slight chance a song might sound familiar; you are never going to know. The upside for songwriters is that if your music is used as ‘aural Polyfilla’, the royalty cheques will keep on dribbling in. As I added up my royalty income for the October 31 tax deadline, it became crystal clear I am not and never will be one of those.

The Sound of Silence

PS: As this essay argues, listening to music should be a matter of personal choice. So click or don’t click on this splendid rendition by She Who Sings (aka Laurel Wilson), of Un Bel Di Vedremo from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

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Kathryn Johnston
November 1, 2019 4:49 pm

I enjoyed this post Bob. Yes, can something be done about the muzak! We have asked on many occasions (in restaurants) for the music to be turned down. Prior to this choosing a table away from the speakers or alternatively leaving altogether.

I absolutely love Laurel’s rendition of ‘Un Bel Di Vedremo’ – a new career awaits!