Audible Wallpaper

We're not really sure who coined the term—it is usually attributed to Alistair Cooke, former host of the "Omnibus" TV program—but "audible wallpaper" is an apt term for something that is of more than passing concern for the serious music listener.

Audible wallpaper is broadly defined as background music—any music that is introduced into any place for the purpose of setting a mood or preventing lapses into silence. Most people like to hear music when they shop or dine or stroll on the mall, so why not give it to them at every opportunity? Simply because the enjoyment of music, like the enjoyment of anything else, can become dulled through overindulgence.

How many of us, who remember the days when music was scarce, can recall the genuine thrill of hearing a pleasant tune on the radio, or the hair-raising experience of a live orchestra concert? Now consider, by contrast, how rarely we react this strongly to music today.

Music itself is no longer a source of intense delight for the listener. Now, it is only certain kinds of music, or certain moments in some works, that can elicit the kind of deep pleasure that people used to experience from virtually any kind of music.

We could argue, of course, that this is all to the good; that it is just a sign that people have become more discriminating in their taste. Indeed, this has been the case to a great extent. But much of what passes for sophisticated taste today stems, not from enhanced appreciation, but from downright boredom out of satiety.

The phonograph has made it possible to hear a work as often as we wish, and the wish will be there as long as we like the music. But if we succumb to the inclination to play a record to death, boredom eventually sets in, the excitement of the music is gone, and so is the enjoyment of it—probably forever.

The ubiquity of audible wallpaper tends to have the same effect, but for all music.

Like wall-type wallpaper, the ideal audible variety is intended to be decorative without being intrusive. It should contribute to the environment without calling attention to itself, and that is exactly why it can be so detrimental to one's enjoyment of all music.

Marshall MacLuhan observed that we tend to base today's values on yesterday's standards, and this couldn't be more true in the case of wired music. In the days before radio or recordings, music was of great value because it was scarce. The average person dined in silence at home (when he wasn't conversing), so the restaurant that could provide some appropriate dining-type music could attract a high-class and affluent clientele. And because music with the meal was something out of the ordinary, it was thoroughly enjoyed, even though it may not always have been listened to with rapt attention.

In today's noisy world, with music on instant call at home and virtually inescapable in public places, silence has become scarcer than music. The most expensive restaurants are frequently those that have no music of any kind, but it is only the restaurateur of rare perception who has recognized the enhanced value of silence in an age of noise. Most proprietors still believe they are doing a great favor for their customers by bathing them in unending music.

The long-term effects of this continuous musical massaging are hard to predict, but some trends are already discernible. Increasing numbers of people, inured to the "conventional" forms of music, are having to seek their musical enjoyment in more and more extreme or violent forms—psychedelic rock at 120dB, or the excruciatingly ugly dissonances of "serious" experimental music. Like the sex maniac who can get all the "normal" sex he wants, the jaded music listener must seek ever more bizarre forms of perversion in an attempt to retain the same level of enjoyment he used to derive from normal sources.

The fact that audible wallpaper is already having this deadening effect on listeners is further illustrated by their almost total lack of conscious awareness of it as anything except noise. If the background music in a public place goes off suddenly, practically everyone is aware that something has changed, but they usually don't know just what. And let the record player get stuck in a groove, and it can sit there and repeat itself dozens of times before anyone starts to suspect that he's heard that phrase before.

"Conventional" music is hardly even considered to be music any more. It is simply pleasant noise, and anyone who has come to accept music—any kind of music—in this blasé manner has been deprived of one of the more pleasurable aspects of life: the enjoyment of music as music.

To the person who thoroughly enjoys the sound of music, audible wallpaper poses a tangible threat to his enjoyment, simply by denying him the contrast between music and silence that makes music the more enjoyable. But what can he do to prevent this? Well, there are several things to be done, depending on how strongly he feels about the situation and how much of an individualist he is willing to be.

For one thing, he might make the effort, whenever practical, to avoid places that feature background music. For another thing, he can take to wearing ear plugs in public places. This isn't as silly as it sounds, for the protection that ear plugs afford from audible wallpaper also applies to other, noisier noises in our environment that have been shown to cause permanent loss of hearing acuity. Don't use the kind of plugs designed for underwater swimming, though; these are of little sound-stopping value. Use one of the varieties designed specifically for noise reduction. They don't suppress all sounds, but merely attenuate them by about 20dB, which will still allow you to hear normal speech clearly. Don't drive a car with the window shut while wearing them, though; you might not hear a warning horn beep or an approaching train whistle.

If he has the necessary self-confidence, he might also lodge occasional complaints with the managers of establishments that try to drown him in sound, perhaps also pointing out, politely, that the loud music gives the place an atmosphere of cheapness and he's sure that isn't the intended impression.

He can also help to preserve his own musical enjoyment by trying to refrain from playing a favorite work too often. Once a day is too much; once per hour will ruin the average work for him in a few evenings. Certainly, liking something is an excellent reason for listening to it, but with a little self-discipline, he can like it for a lot longer than he could otherwise. And his life will be just a little bit more enjoyable for doing so.