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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Background Music Makes Daily Life Worse, Not Better

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 3:30 AM


Is background music necessary? Ever?

My favorite sound in the world is the white noise the city makes outside my open window. I hear distant traffic; the arrivals and departures of streetcars; all manner of beeps; the occasional (and always alluring) clacking of high heels; the ascendent smoke rings of conversation from who-knows-where and who-knows-how that find my second-story office; and, for another couple months at least, the chirping of birds.

On most days this time of year, it doesn't occur to me to turn my stereo on. When I do find myself leafing through my records in the middle of the day, it's usually the first sign something is amiss, and that I'm looking to escape some uncomfortable mental-emotional state I've wandered into. Otherwise, the white noise is perfect -- stirring, even.

So, background music: Does it make our lives better? Does it make it worse? Really. Think about it with me for a minute.

Say no to background music?
  • Say no to background music?

Say you're at a restaurant, you're alone. You've ordered your meal. The entire room's vibe is downtrodden; or maybe it's upwardly mobile -- this doesn't really matter right now. But there is a general dynamic here and you would like to suss it out. So you're pretending to draft a text or read a book while spying a couple at the next table. They're entertaining you in that way only unsuspecting people can.

Does this little play they're performing for your private benefit really require an artificial soundtrack? A '90s alternative rock digital station, say? Is the deep cut from Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream blaring over the restaurant's stereo really going to enhance the flavor of that masala dosa the cook is preparing for you in the kitchen? Doesn't it, in fact, cheapen things some? Like the way already touching moments in movies are often canceled out when they are joined by a redundantly weepy song? Or an inappropriately soaring anthem, for that matter?

Then there's the question of the quality of music that's imposed on us in these situations. It might go against conventional wisdom, but I've always argued the better the music, the cheaper the experience. If I had my choice, I think I'd only hear Def Leppard songs (or some equally negligible and non-dynamic music) in public, because at least the quality of the music would match the quality of the listening experience. There's no worse way to hear a favorite song than while shopping at Whole Foods. To tune in to the unmistakable tambourine in "Pale Blue Eyes", while straining to pick up Sterling Morrison's lithe and slightly lewd guitar -- all of this over the buzz of the frozen food section: this is hell cleverly disguised as heaven. And like rock 'n' roll itself, it shouldn't be forgotten that such soft torment is a relatively new fixture within our civilization.

The last 10 years have overflowed with op-eds about how iPods and smart phones are making us lonelier. The argument typically goes like this: our gadgets have made us insular and inattentive to our environment and to the people around us. But I think the ubiquity of background music -- in shops and eateries (even on the sidewalks immediately outside these businesses) -- was way ahead of this curve. Not because the constant hum of radio draws our attention inward so much, but because it blunts our receptors and upsets the natural mood and tempo that would otherwise unfold among us in our public spaces. Public sound systems have a passive-aggressive way of bullying our psyches around. Again, like movie soundtracks, they tell us when to be happy and sad. But they mostly try to gin us up to buy stuff. Once you step out of your home, the bluster is constant and imperceptibly wearying.

If you don't believe music can have this impact on the way we engage with one another, then pay close attention, next time you find yourself locked into a long conversation, to the way the changing tempos, keys, and dynamics coming from a nearby stereo will compel your interlocutor to, in turn, get serious, silly, impatient, even affectionate. Music, with its air-tickling vibrations, can be as much a physical presence as an extra person in the room, a third wheel slumped in the corner, singing directions at you.

Now, think back to that masala dosa, and imagine this influence multiplied by a couple dozen. Consider how inescapable background music is -- and how unnecessary it is in most cases.

Aren't such mood enhancements really just distractions from the rich yet subtle flavor of day-to-day living? Doesn't the addition of background music to your dining experience or your walk down the street rest on an aesthetic par with the injection of MSG into your diet? Don't such superfluous and attention-diverting boosters ruin our palate, both in the literal and metaphorical sense?

You know what my answer is. Now, turn off the radio and tell me yours.

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