A Musician Pleads For Quiet

Most of the restaurants in town serve canned music along with the fresh food and conversation.  It used to be worse.  Some time ago, this dining ambiance was all “New Age” music - the kind that stays on the same three or four notes for ten minutes at a time, because a fifth note might overly challenge the intellect or technique of the player.  That stuff is insidious.  It hobbles the mind and holds it hostage while subjecting it to an auditory version of Chinese Water Torture.  Drip, drip, drip....you can’t turn it off and you can’t ignore it.  


If you don’t like the decor, you can look away.  (The waterfront restaurants even provide special shades to keep the sunset out of your eyes.)  But you can’t turn your ears aside.  It’s like being forced to look at everything through wallpaper.  No one would willingly put up with that.  The distraction would be unbearable.  Every time you wanted to see something you’d have to look around and through this grid of annoying, boring stuff, and some of the things you wanted to see would always be hidden by the wallpaper pattern.  Well, that’s what happens to your hearing when this supposedly innocuous ooze is forced on your consciousness.  It’s sugar-coated sound pollution and absolutely mind rotting, just as intellectually vacant as the worst heavy metal music, only soft.


Lately, I’ve noticed some improvement in the variety of mood music in restaurants.  One of them plays Mozart and another has tapes of some choice popular music with a little rhythmic and melodic character.  At least your brain can operate in that environment.  It’s energy consuming to listen around the background if you don’t happen to want to be occupied with it, but at least when it does occupy a part of your consciousness, it doesn’t strap it into helpless submission.


But, there’s a bigger issue here than musical taste.  How much sensory input can be comfortably processed at one time?  At eating out prices, I like to taste my food!  And what about conversation with my dinner companions?  It’s not that I don’t like sensation, I just like to deal with the sensations I choose, without the imposition of extra ones.


We’ve been in restaurants, empty but for one other table, asked for the music to be turned off and been told that “The other customers want it.”  Did they ask for it?  Has the restaurant taken a poll?  I’ve even been told that customers who are not yet in the restaurant but might come in, would want the music, so it cannot be turned off, even if we’re the only diners at the moment!  This is a serious conflict: Noise polluter’s rights versus the right to mental and sensory space, the sound equivalent of smoke blown in your face.


The common insistence on playing canned music where there are live musicians playing, is even more irrational.  No chef I know would allow  a serving of canned peas to share a plate with carefully prepared fresh vegetables, but that same chef will insist on filling up the ears of the customers in his restaurant with recorded music, right up to the moment the live musicians he has taken the trouble and expense to hire, are about to play.  How about a bowl of M&M’s before dinner?


Of course, this encourages listeners to treat performers as if they were not even there.  Music from recordings, music from performers in the room, it’s all just background and we don’t even notice that we have to shout to be heard by our dinner companions.  Anyway, they’ll just play louder. 


In restaurants you get to ask if the music might be turned off though they rarely do it.  There seems to be an allergy to the sound of conversation and friendly kitchen noises, but you do get to ask.  When you are put on hold on the telephone and you must stay on the line, to make an airline reservation for instance, then you are trapped.  You can’t walk out, you can’t ask for another selection and you can’t ask that the music be turned down.  On top of this, the music is invariably idiotic.  I understand the logic.  Use the music to let people know they are still on hold and that someone will eventually answer, but that doesn’t make me like it any better.


I will leave a store with annoying music but I don’t mind it so much in the supermarket.  There is little else to occupy my mind and I can dance down the aisles behind a shopping cart.  That’s about the only dancing I get to do and at least I get to react normally to the music.


If all of this is a problem for me and perhaps for some others, it probably hasn’t reached the level of a health threat.  But when I hear what is played at aerobic exercise classes and the decibel level to which it is amplified, I fear for the mental and aural health of the participants.  They are improving their cardio-vascular systems while they are rotting their brains and damaging their ears.  There ought to be a law.

Chuck Israels

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