Soapbox: On Background Music
This is quite a specific rant. It’s not the general principle of piping music into shared public spaces that I am going to inveigh against, though I know of many professional musicians who do get a bit grumpy about it. I have seen a well-respected choral conductor in a provincial hotel ask for a full English, brown toast, and for the radio to be turned off.
I am not unsympathetic to the view that treating music as aural wallpaper cheapens the art form and desensitizes our ears to music played with intention. But, you know me, I try to be quite live-and-let-live, and I note that a lot of people seem to like it. Sometimes I even like it myself, as a change from the music in my head, which I can’t seem to get anyone to turn off. Unless it’s Jingle Bell Rock, of course, then I want to stab somebody.
So if pubs, restaurants and shops feel that piping music into the space makes it more congenial for the people they want as customers, I’m not going to argue. I may leave and go somewhere else if I don’t like it, but then again I tend to regard that as useful information about whether the business is trying to please people like me.
But. But. Grrrr. But. At concerts?? This annoys me, to put it mildly.
If you buy a ticket to hear live music, it’s because you want to hear that music, and you have paid in advance to have that specific experience. The musicians spend 45-50 minutes pulling you into their sound world, so that by the interval your head is in their place, you’ve got your brain turned round so that it’s in exactly the right position to catch those kinds of musical ideas. It’s very pleasurable, I should do it more often.
And then they go off-stage and the space is immediately flooded by something completely different. The more entranced you have been by the performance, the more this feels like an intrusion, as you are bumped unceremoniously into a completely different world. It might be a very good world in its way, but it’s not the one you have specifically chosen to be in by going to that concert. It actively spoils the pleasure of the experience you have just had, and disrupts the continuity of the musical journey the performers have put together for you.
And then again the same at the end. For sure, it makes sure I scuttle out of the auditorium as soon as possible, so it does at least serve to clear the building for them.
The problem is often a mismatch of both volume and aesthetic. Acoustic music suffers particularly from the juxtaposition of piped music in between, making the sound when the performers come back on feel initially a bit weedy, so that the audience has to adjust the focal length of their ears (if you see what I mean) back to the unamplified sounds. But even when the performers are playing with amplification, a blast of folk rock - to take a real example - simply tramples over the intricate listening mode evoked by John Etheridge’s gypsy jazz.
As a thought experiment, I’m wondering about how it would be if you played music more like that at the gig, so you avoid this kind of aesthetic gear-crunching. Say, that artist's last CD. I think I would be less directly affronted, but I would still be irritated to have access to my own aural memory interfered with. And I know I’m not the only person to enjoy reflecting about the detail of what we have just heard while the memory is fresh, as my friends join in those conversations too.
Now, I could imagine that the institutions that put on the events I am grumbling about might say that the building is in use for other things as well as the concert, and that the piped music is for those users as much as for the concert-goers. In which case, they could at least consider leaving the room in which the performance is happening free from muzak. And if people really can’t bear the silence for 20 minutes, they can go out into the bar for their sonic immersion - their needs are still being met.
But, please, give those of us who have chosen the musical experience because we want to cherish it the chance actually to cherish it while it is fresh.