On November 21st, Britain's "No Music Day" showed why taking a break from ubiquitous music in public spaces is a badly-needed means of reclaiming the ability to actually listen to your surroundings, writes Kevin Berger.
What if no music blared from airports, supermarkets, bars, department stores or restaurants? Imagine being able to sit down in your neighborhood cafe and hear your friend talk without having to parse her words through the strains of "Sweet Child o' Mine." On Nov. 21, a surprisingly wide swath of Britain honored "No Music Day." Radio stations, stores, recording studios and scores of music lovers took a laudable vow of musical silence. Should No Music Day come to America tomorrow, it wouldn't be soon enough.
Not being able to hear yourself think, or feel, or escape "Hotel California," is indeed what makes music in public places a nightmare. Your poor senses are crushed every time you step out of the house. By hammering you with pop tunes before a movie, Cineplexes manage to kill your appetite for a film. And can't we just daydream in a market's fluorescent aisles, ruminate over whether we want to prepare salmon or ravioli tonight, without having to hear "once, twice, three times a lady"?
Why do bars insist on pummeling us with their songs at the decibel levels of NHRA drag races? Bars are supposed to be an oasis from work and noise, places to sort out life in conversations with friends and lovers. These days, I gauge the sound level before deciding to sit down and have a drink.
In the '90s, Muzak reinvented itself with a new philosophy called audio architecture. The company sold music in public places not as a tranquilizer but as a means to enhance the shopping experience, as the marketing jargon goes. As Alvin Collins, a founder of the concept, explained to Owen, he was creating "retail theater." Muzak wasn't about soothing music anymore.
That leads to a deeper reason that music in public places gets under your skin. You hear songs that once lifted your spirits employed to sell you a computer. The offensive philosophy that music can condition consumer behavior or create a psychic soundscape shows up in all kinds of public places.
What [No Music Day] is really about is not escaping the incessant and unwanted drone of music in public. It's about learning how to listen again.