Why are we so scared of silence?

Hark to the sound of music all around you! There are the jaunty tones of personalised mobile phones – a blast of Eminem here, a few notes of “The Birdy Song” there, half a bar of a Brandenburg concerto in the background. Nearby there might be a commuter, a jogger, or someone walking a dog, generously sharing their sounds with strangers. Go for a coffee or a meal, browse in a shop, and you will be accompanied by a backing track of Kylie or Norah Jones or Mozart. If you make a telephone call and are put on hold, there will be more tunes coming at you down the line as you wait.

There has never been so much music in the air – free, around the clock, whether we want it or not.

It has taken a musician to point out that this warm blanket of sound is an insidious assault on our senses. The Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has described taped music in public places as “some kind of commercial and cultural terrorism”.

The composer revealed that he had recently been driven out of a branch of Waterstone’s by the rubbish being played on the book shop’s sound system. The “moronic melodies” of mobile phone ringtones were every bit as bad. The Performing Rights Society (PRS), collecting cash on behalf of musicians, was, said Sir Peter, contributing to a general process of dumbing down.

The PRS defends itself on financial grounds – the canned music business brings in millions every year – but even composers and musicians who earn good money from it would probably admit that something of a betrayal is taking place. Music is being used by business to drown out silence, to take the edge off conversation and thought.

Once the ridiculous pap known as “muzak” was to be heard only in lifts and hotel lobbies – places where, it was presumably thought, the silence of strangers together caused awkwardness. Now real music is in public places everywhere, and its polluting effect is incomparably more harmful.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is wrong to blame the “moronic melodies” . When good stuff, of whatever genre, is reduced to the level of musical Prozac, the difference between it and manufactured lift-music is whittled away. I might be happy to buy a pair of trousers to the sound of Django Reinhardt or Ry Cooder, music which might seem moronic to Sir Peter; if his own “Eight Songs For A Mad King” were playing in the shop, I might find that irritating. The effect on both of us has been the same. The very music which is meant to be life-enhancing has become bland, corporate and essentially negative.

The reason piped music is used by business is to reduce customers to a state of blissed-out receptiveness. “Audio architecture is emotion by design,” the Muzak website creepily explains, “Its power lies in its subtlety.” But there is something alarming about a society so afraid of silence or the sound of human communication that it is prepared to have its privacy invaded in this way.

It becomes less brave, less robustly individual. The process of alienation to be found in the number of people going through life locked into their own cyber-world is taken a stage further when even those not wearing earphones are obliged to have their every word and thought accompanied by disembodied sound.

There are signs, though, that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is not alone. A survey conducted at Gatwick Airport found a majority of people opposed to canned music; in questionnaires, muzak and its derivatives always list high among irritants of modern life. It is time to resist this corruption of the song, to complain about intrusive sound, even when it is slick and melodic. Banning canned music may not be a serious option, but resisting the pressure to become another placid victim of “audio architecture” is open to each of us.

Independent, Tuesday, 1 February 2011