The Tyranny of Background Music

Want music? Wear earbuds.

It’s Everywhere

I’m sitting in a coffee shop having my pre-workout espresso. There is a succession of vapid happy-sad songs playing from overhead, and I forgot my earbuds.

When I get to the gym they will be playing one song on rotation, a female vocalist singing up and down a minor scale, so gratingly simple that as music it barely makes the grade of baby talk. I will keep my workout brief and even so I will leave in a foul mood.

As in the USA, nearly everyone in the gym will be wearing earbuds, listening to whatever they choose to hear. I’m sure I’m not the only member wearing earbuds so as to not hear the commercial swill from overhead.

I’m not in retail so I’m really not sure why stores play background music. Perhaps it’s to create a “happy” atmosphere, an illusion that things are happening, that shopping is exciting. At my gym, the Asian franchise of 24 Hour Fitness in the USA, the staff is required to keep the happiness playing during working hours. They can turn it down a few decibels but they’ll get fired if they turn it off.

Popular Music is Horrible

To anyone whose introduction to music didn’t come from Whitney Houston the popular music of these times is ghastly. It is all based on a few simple formulae, most of it is by female vocalists with little talent, it is terribly simple and repetitive. It has no changes of dynamics, key or tempo and with at most four chords is harmonically empty. It all uses a few simple devices (small wonder; most of it is written by two men).

To anyone who loves music, to anyone connected to musicianship in any way not commercial, popular music is horrible.

To anyone who grew up in better times and who remembers when it was about bands instead of singers, popular music is torture. That solitary song in the gym isn’t even in primitive verse-chorus format; it’s just a scale, not even a melody, over and over and over.

Can’t Please Everyone

Musical tastes vary. Music is personal. We are more likely to form friendships with people of similar tastes than with different. Some people are deeply involved with music and are very particular about what they listen to. I like more music than anyone I know; classical, jazz, ambient, rock. The one genre I don’t like is the one playing overhead.

And the irony — music produced by very highly paid technicians and mastered using speakers we could never afford — played from voice-quality overhead monophonic speakers over the clatter of shopping carts.

If stores insist on playing background music they are going to displease a predictable portion of their customers. So what do they play?

They play music intended for people who don’t really care about music at all

They play music from the charts; music for people who don’t care about music. Disposable music; ephemeral music. Music that will be gone next week and which nobody will miss.

I don’t expect stores to cater to my tastes. Not many people would like what I listen to; that doesn’t make me special or superior but I am deeply involved with music and have been since my teens and especially since the Aqualung concert that led to me buying my first flute and becoming a musician. I love good music. Bad music makes me sick.

I’m not alone.

Walkman, iPod, Earbuds

Sony released the first Walkman in 1979. It was a portable cassette player one could take anywhere, typically worn on one’s side attached to a belt. Ninety minutes of whatever anyone wanted to listen to, with earphones instead of loudspeakers. She shall have music wherever she goes. Add a box of tapes and anyone could listen anywhere, anytime, to music of their choice.

From the Walkman to portable CD player to the iPod and then music on a proliferation of portable devices. With the iPod one could have weeks of music in a device smaller than a deck of cards. Soon this was months or years of music. One of my iPads has a terabyte of RAM and can hold more music than a 19th century conductor heard in his entire life. Even my phone holds more than I could listen to in a year.

Background music was objectionable before; with the advent of portable music of one’s own choosing the time for the tyranny of overhead speakers is long past.

Complain and Object

If you’re in a store or a gym and you’re being blasted with top 40 then ask to speak to the manager and voice your objections. Don’t bother the underpaid sales staff, they’re already miserable and can’t do anything about it anyway. If the manager says that he’s required to play the crap then suggest playing something else. Who doesn’t like Glenn Miller?

One complaining customer will get the brush-off; a barrage of complaints will get noticed.

And if you’re stuck in a waiting room with a TV playing Fox News, just pull the plug.

American Software Developer living in Vietnam. Classical musician (guitar, woodwinds), weightlifter, multilingual, misanthrope • XY

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