British conductor Thomas Beecham famously quipped that the “English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes”.
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These days, his observation might be extended to most parts of the world. In cities in the developed world, background music is everywhere. It is not there to be listened to, it is just noise: a sonic accompaniment to the rhythms of urban life.
If we adapt Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, we might say that the message is that music can readily be reduced to the condition of functional noise.
It is an extreme change in its role. Before the advent of recorded music in the 20th century, performances of music were confined to the concert halls or their equivalent, and they usually commanded close attention because these events were only occasional.
Now, the sound of music is constant. One wonders what Bach or Mozart would think about being reduced to background music in shopping malls. Or how a long list of Romantic composers would regard their techniques being pillaged for the sound tracks of films.
The implications of the commodification of music were brought home to this writer when interviewing the blind British jazz pianist, George Shearing. He expressed great distress at having to listen to muzak – the hideous versions of The Girl from Ipanema in lifts, for instance.
To him, for whom hearing had a much greater level of importance than for most people, the experience was painful. By what right, he asked, did people have the permission to inflict such horrors on him?
Shearing could not switch off like most. I, too, cannot stand endless versions of The Girl from Ipanema (the song plays in the lift sequence towards the end of The Blues Brothers), but I find it easy to ignore. Shearing, however, was unable to shut it out, so he had to endure what was clearly a deeply unpleasant experience for him.
What is missing in this world of constant background music is silence. There is an analogy with the fact that, in a world in which screen images dominate, it has become much harder to experience boredom. It means there is less need to use inner mental resources to find interest, which in turn probably means less creativity. When too much stimulus is provided, there is an inevitable decline in the ability to find new things.
With the proliferation of music, the lack of silence likewise removes the need to imagine sounds. Not only does the sense of freshness in music become harder to achieve, it is less likely something new will be devised.
British philosopher of music Roger Scruton comments that the proliferation of background music, especially pop music, is used to cover up the banality of modern life. He believes it has led to inarticulateness in the young, as if their ears are “stuffed with cotton wool”.
Like Shearing, Scruton believes there should be laws against such music, likening it to pollution that poisons the soul. “Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say. On the other hand, if we knew silence for what once it was, as the plastic material that is shaped by real music, then it would not frighten us at all.”
It is certainly true that if one goes to a nightclub, the loud music is designed to conceal the fact that people have very little to say to each other. Because you cannot hear what anyone says anyway it does not matter that nothing much can be said – and that, presumably, is the point, or at least the commercial proposition.
Scruton conflates the constant use of background music and the low quality of popular music. They are not exactly the same thing. Some of the background popular music, especially from the 1960s, is actually of very high quality. But he is right to think there is a connection. The need to pump out comfortable noise to play in shopping malls is one reason for the demise of good song writing.
Scruton believes that teaching people to play instruments could be an antidote to this poison; moving away from the reproduction of music to its production. But the intense use of background music is not about to disappear, and the art form is all the poorer for it.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.