Can We Put a Dagger in the Heart of Muzak?

A Plea for the Blessings of Silence

For readers of a certain age, know that I am about to unleash my inner Andy Rooney. Whose bright idea was it that we needed, much less wanted, background music everywhere we go? What seemed like a simple and benign idea has spread noxiously.

Background music has been with us forever. Remember those paintings of medieval courts? Many showed musicians playing in the background while everyone feasted. But with what we generically refer to as Muzak (or canned music), the sound is now everywhere.

Muzak, by the way, was patented as an idea all the way back in the 1920’s.  It took off in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It began about then to serve as a targeted device to make shoppers happier. NASA used it to sooth astronauts. President Johnson owned the Muzak franchise in Austin, TX. I was fascinated to learn that in an earlier era, background music of this sort was played in 15-minute increments, with 15 minutes of silence between stretches of music. Boy, has that lesson been lost. Those were the good old days.

Today it is rare that you can enter a fast-casual restaurant, a bar, an airport, or a shopping venue without the constant sound of canned music. Often loud, always pervasive. I have actually told a waiter I would double his tip if he could turn that stuff off. Oddly enough, one seldom hears it in elevators anymore, one of the original venues for Muzak.

I like a little music as much as the next person, especially instrumentals. But hearing a loop of music of dubious quality and as likely as not a genre I am not in the mood for at the moment is an irritant. It makes conversation more difficult. It makes concentrating on reading more challenging. And it deprives us of precious silence, something we all could use more of on any given day. And if not actual silence, at least less noise.

I suppose this is one reason there are so many people wearing noise cancelling earphones. I do it myself to get away from the noise for a bit. Of course, some are using these headsets to create their own Muzak. Fine with me, as long they don’t share it with the rest of us. Remember when people had humongous “portable” radios blasting out their favorite music? To make it even worse, it was often disco! Those definitely were not the good old days.

So, all you store owners and public space managers out there, give us a hand, please. Turn the music off for a while. Go back to the few minutes on, few minutes off model. We will thank you, our ears will thank you, our minds will thank you. For the rest of us, we might think about mentioning to owners and managers that we appreciate their making us welcome, but the canned music often has the opposite effect. Just leaving people alone with their thoughts periodically would be a welcome change.

Let us now reflect on this — in silence.

      Bill Clontz


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4 replies to Can We Put a Dagger in the Heart of Muzak?

  1. I’d be ecstatic if waiting rooms and hotel breakfast buffets would get rid of the constant TV noise. Why oh why can’t there be a “quiet room” like the “quiet car” on Amtrak?

    • Oh, how right you are! That is another major irritant, for sure.

      I have noticed that a few smart hotels have gone to switching the breakfast room TV to the Weather Channel, with no sound, which gets my vote as an OK solution. If they put any form of news channel on, they are looking for conflict, depending on who is in the room and what they like to watch. Better silent and innocuous in such a setting!

  2. Lately I’ve been irritated by noise in stores while shopping for items such as groceries to clothing/shoes. I won’t call it music because I think it’s autotuned racket. I’ve noticed for many years new restaurant buildings cut back on insulation making conversations difficult if not impossible. Shopping online from the comfort of my own home is my solution. I value and need peace and realize I need to be proactive and not subject myself to chaos in any form although when I am, I am thankful for what I have. (I do miss disco as it’s lively and fun but not while shopping.)

    • I had not thought about reduced insulation in public places; I think you are right. Now, about that disco…🙄

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