Terence Blacker: Why are we so scared of silence?

People are so afraid of silence that they are prepared to have their privacy invaded

Related Topics

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.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Ben Chu
David Cameron leaves Number 10 to speak at Parliament  

Tunisia attack: To prevent more bloodshed we must accept that containment has not worked

Patrick Cockburn
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue