Everywhere is alive with the din of muzak

Let’s get rid of the pervasive scourge of ‘elevator music’

Like a lead-booted diver, I trudge around the shopping centre trying to escape the cosh of muzak. Integral to the centre’s architectonics, 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. Maybe it’s time to leave or have a drink.

But whether I’m sipping my chilled lager lattecino in a pub, café or restaurant, the din is still part of the “experience” and the stench of muzak is all-pervasive. Music confers many therapeutic and life-enhancing benefits, but once it has been separated from its context and pumped into a space like so much aural Polyfilla, the devalued result is muzak.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, muzak is “recorded light background music played through speakers in public places”. The Urban Dictionary defines it as elevator music.

Whatever the precise definition, as professor of music Simon Frith, of the University of Edinburgh, observes in his Music and Everyday Life: "There's no longer any necessary connection between the occasion for making music and the occasion for listening to it."


Thus, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) censured ITN in 2001 for broadcasting a "sick and tasteless" news sequence in which Gounod's Judex accompanied footage of the collapsing World Trade Center in New York.

The ITC judged that the attempt to set these images to music “was inappropriate and breached the programme code”.

Back in October 1969, following violinist Yehudi Menuhin's address to Unesco's International Music Council, 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".

“Our world has become a sounding board for manmade sounds, amplified to suffuse and suffocate us,” Menuhin said.

Try shouting that out loud into the ear of Ireland's nightclub bar staff above DJ Escape's Shout It Out Loud. But even if you switched off the music, some bar staff might struggle to hear you. In 2012, researchers from the Dublin Institute of Technology published a study in which they investigated the extent to which nine Irish nightclubs complied with the 2007 noise regulations.

Noise regulations

The average daily noise exposure of bar employees was 92 decibels “ . . . almost four times more than the accepted legal limit. None of the venues examined was fully compliant with the requirements of the 2007 noise regulations, and awareness of this legislation was limited.”

And when researchers examined “occupational noise exposure and regulatory adherence in music venues in the United Kingdom”, they reported that “ . . . elements of the music industry currently appear to be largely ignoring their legal responsibility to protect staff from high noise levels”.

Irrespective of bar owners’ legislative awareness, the last thing they will accept is the concept of a quiet drink because alcohol consumption thrives on noise pollution.

As Prof Stuart Sim notes in his Manifesto for Silence, "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."

Compliant consumers

But away from zones of “frenzied consumption”, whether in a boutique or a DIY store, muzak moulds us into compliant consumers, given its pivotal role in what retailers call the “customer experience”. But I don’t want a “customer experience”; I want to go in, buy stuff and leave. If it’s an experience I’m after, I’ll go sky-diving.

Even hospitals offer scant refuge. Florence Nightingale once wrote: "Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care which can be inflicted either on sick or on well."

Yet many hospital wards are as noisy as an angle-grinder’s workshop, and they’re further compromised by so-called “bedside entertainment systems” (BES).

Since the mid-1990s these gadgets have colonised hospital wards more than MRSA, encouraging bed-bound patients to retreat from the 21st century’s most elusive and, arguably healing, commodity: peace and quiet.

Evidence shows that BES may well extend your hospital stay. A UK study published in the European Journal of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery back in 2008 described a trial of 100 elective cardiac surgery patients, 52 of whom had access to BES and 48 of whom didn't. The researchers found that BES "tend to keep patients occupied in their bed, leading to increased immobility".

“This may predispose them to a number of complications and may contribute to an increased hospital stay,” the researchers wrote.

Buzz of conversation

So, why have we surrendered our right not to have to listen to muzak in shopping centres, restaurants and other public places? Perhaps we have regressed to an

Alton Towers

of the mind and become

Homo entertainmentus

: a devolution wrought at the expense of independent thought, our brains unable to function without background noise.

So we do what Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore observed in 1916: "Man goes into the noisy crowd to drown his own clamour of silence."

A night out with friends; the buzz of conversation; and, yes, deafening roars of laughter are gloriously noisy and life-enriching moments that are hallmarks of civilised human behaviour. But allowing ourselves to be governed by the empty ideology of a noise-filled, muzak-laden culture is dehumanising. Ireland has banned smoking in public places; why not muzak?