Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Against Background Music

Why is there background music? Music should be serious. It can stir the soul, sharpen the mind, provoke the imagination, engage the will. Or: it can sicken the soul, dull the mind, or impede or pollute the imagination. It brings joy, pain--and boredom.

Music is nothing to play with, then; but play with it we do--all the time; it is inescapable, or nearly so. In days or yore, background music in public was limited to elevators; hence, the phrase "elevator music." This mean bland, colorless sounds to perhaps sooth the catastrophic or impatient. One could tolerate this, especially if one was infrequently in elevators.

Now, however, music--uninvited and often quite blaring--is everywhere. This ought not be for at least two reasons.

First, silence helps us recompose our souls and focus our thoughts on some one thing. Music always take up part of our precious--and very limited--consciousness, thus taking something away from other concerns: reading, praying, conversing. If I am trying to curb my fears and rehearse my speech in a doctor's office, I need silence, not distraction or irritation. Yes, I have heard Kenny G these environs.

Second, with the expansion of musical styles available for public broadcast, the odds of one enjoying the invited music are quite low--in my case, the chances of this eventually occurred are vanishingly small, given my esoteric (jazz, of course) tastes. If one has worked to develop one's musically sensibilities, bad music can be acutely painful. It becomes a rude intrusion into one's sensorium.

Of course, many people compensate by engaging in sonic warfare. You isolate and insulate yourself by your own music system: noise-cancelling headphone or ear buds. This will fend off the musical intruders, but it will also make you an island amidst the living. Common space and conversation is attenuated, if not obliterated.

On a recent flight from Atlanta to Denver, I suffered through horrible background music, and insufferably comedic flight attendant, and cramped seating. I turned to talk to the women next to me only to find that the ear buds were in, so the conversation was out.

What can we do about this plague? Not much, I suppose. However, in environments that we control, we can prize silence and good music. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard can be our guides. Nietzsche wrote that life without music would be a mistake; and the melancholic great Dane said ..."create silence."



John said...

From The Screwtape Letters:

"Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress."

Douglas Groothuis said...


That is a perfect further commentary. I would have included it, given more time!

Anthony said...

What is particularly interesting in the less-than-innocent designs for background music in some settings.

For example, many malls have specially crafted soundtracks for the main hallways so as to motivate people to enter the stores; this is done through the subtle manipulation of tone and volume (not simply by playing unpopular tunes).

Or other establishments will play certain kinds of music - such as classical - to prevent people from loitering on the premises. Several places on the 16th Street Mall here in Denver exemplify this (and rarely have folks in front of them asking for money).

What have we lost when music is merely a tool?

TJIC said...

> I turned to talk to the women next to me only to find that the ear buds were in, so the conversation was out.
> What can we do about this plague?

Personally, the plague that bothers me is seatmates striking up unwanted conversation, so what ** I ** do about it is bring earbuds with me.