Music in Public Spaces

I was in a Carl's Jr. a few weeks ago with Danny, enjoying a nice, relaxing breakfast. Suddenly, I noticed my right eye twitching intermittently. At that point, I realised I had been listening to Faith Hill screeching about a specific kiss for who knows how long.

After just having checked that article, I'm even more upset that she's been wailing about it for eleven years running. Nobody cared then, and you've since probably divorced the owner of the lips that delivered said kiss.

But while I have a certain level of disdain for Ms. Hill, I will not channel my wrath toward her right now. Music in public spaces is in an unfortunate decline.

I was having a pleasant time enjoying what many people agree is the most important meal of the day, and was disturbed by the very thing retailers use to lull their customers into a sense of comfort and readiness to purchase.

When the first studies of music in public spaces were done, there was a list of basic requirements to guarantee maximum inoffensiveness. Off the top of my head, I suggest the following:

Essentially, the music is simply there to cover up the stark, awkward silence of a public space populated by people who aren't present for any social obligations.

Ambient music pioneer Brian Eno used these concepts in his work Music For Airports, which was intended for an installation in a German airport. In a twist of irony, those air-travelers found the music irritating.

For a long time, there were radio stations that broadcast in a format called "Beautiful Music" that was designed for retailers to play over their PA systems. The layperson would call it Muzak and as a result of that labeling, decide he hates it. But what is Beautiful Music?

Most Beautiful Music songs were instrumental adaptations of current pop songs as played by an orchestra or chamber ensemble. That way, shoppers could hear a song they were familiar with while getting the week's groceries and whistle it to themselves on the way back home.

The key component of this music is really what it doesn't include: vocals.

While the human ear can detect a wide range of sonic frequencies, it is particularly sensitive to the band where the human voice is heard. Since we use verbal communication so often, this makes sense from a biological standpoint. But when you're alone in a retail environment where there is minimal human interaction, the ears need a rest from that frequency range.

With this in mind, the Muzak everyone makes fun of was perfect for public spaces like supermarkets and elevators. It was pleasant, tasteful, and didn't have any jarring elements that would draw attention to itself. Muzak is sonic furniture. As time wore on, however, Muzak fell out of fashion and was replaced by original artist recordings with vocals intact.

My problem with this trend, aside from my general distaste for pop vocals, is that pop music has no furniture-like qualities.

The musical landscape is so littered with singers trying to be noticed among a sea of slightly-above-average-at-best vocalists that the industry has forced them to exploit their range and power on every two-and-a-half-minute track that makes it to a record. This may not be exhausting for their fans - they're listening to the music actively. For the singer, it is definitely an exhausting experience. And whether passive listeners realise it or not, our brains are pretty tired from it too.

When I'm in a public space, buying groceries or eating breakfast, or running tech support in a car dealership, I'm not in the business of noticing how well a singer is able to belt out the same four notes at the top of her range. I've worked rather hard trying to tune that out so I can be productive in such an environment.

The chances of a song being played overhead triggering an unpleasant memory are greatly increased without Muzak. When this happens, a customer could subconsciously extend those unpleasant memories to the establishment playing the offending tune.

As an example, I was recently at a Quizno's on my lunch break, enjoying a delicious toasted sandwich, when Never Gonna Give You Up came on. Yes, Quizno's rickrolled me, in mid-bite. My appetite was all but ruined in that moment, and I entertained the idea of walking out immediately.

I didn't, mainly because I paid a lot of money for that sandwich, and as I mentioned before, it was indeed delicious. Had an instrumental version of that same song come on, I would have chuckled to myself and my mood would have been brightened.

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