Canned Music

Everyone knows music is a good thing. More than merely good, it appears to meet some kind of human need, because every race in every land has a musical tradition going back to before recorded or recounted history. Some of their music may not seem like music to our unsophisticated ears, but as soon as someone discovered that two sticks of different sizes produced different pitches when struck on a venerated ancestor's skull, he advanced beyond mere rhythm to what must be considered music. (Two sticks would, presumably, play binary music: the first precursor of digital sound.) In fact, were there no music at all today, humankind would probably find it necessary to invent it on the spot, along with a mythology relating how it was created on the eighth day, after ingrown toenails.

Aspirin is a good thing, too.

So is arsenic. We know it as a poison, dear to the hearts of murder mystery writers, but, in small quantities, arsenic was the preferred treatment for certain bacterial infections until antibiotics came along.

Sex! Now that's certainly a good thing. So are modesty, honesty, and diligence, maybe even restraint, loyalty, and our chosen brand of religion. But overdo any of these things, or just about any other thing which we all know to be Good, and it becomes Bad (footnote 1).

Too much aspirin can give you hallucinations, whistling in the ears, and convulsions. More than a little arsenic can kill you. Too much sex becomes boring, modesty becomes self-effacement, and honesty becomes brutal candor. Too much diligence becomes compulsion, restraint becomes inhibition, loyalty becomes toadying, and organized religion prays for God to bring back the good ol' days of the Spanish Inquisition. And music becomes banal.

Of all these Good Things, music remains the only one whose overdosage nobody recognizes as Bad. Like money, most people seem to feel there's no way you can get too much of it. So that's exactly what you get: too much of it, everywhere, all the time—in supermarkets, drug stores, restaurants, video stores, doctor's offices, elevators, parks, shopping malls, airplanes, department stores, buses, public toilets, massage parlors, TV commercials, swimming pools (even underwater), telephone Holds, formal receptions, barbecues, business meetings, sporting events, children's movies, teenage movies, political rallies, fund-raisings, cocktail parties, church services, bowling alleys, factories, garages, bar mitzvas, amusement parks, and mortuaries. And it's all totally beyond your control.

OK, so you like music as much as anyone. But suppose you don't happen to like the kind of music being blared across a public place? Or worse, suppose you just don't want to listen to any music right then? Well fellah, tough titty. You are a minority of one.

In an expensive restaurant, you may ask politely that the music be turned down a bit so you can hear yourself think, and if you're lucky, it will happen. (You can rely on the fact that if it gets turned down at all it will probably get turned 'way down, because non-audio people hear volume-change increments only in 6dB steps.) But don't waste your time trying to get it turned off. Ask for that, and you will be informed that "our other patrons like it."

But glance around you at the other patrons. Do they look as if they're enjoying that racket? Are they tapping their feet or nodding their heads or waving their kebab skewers in time to that jivey beat? Hell, no. They're completely oblivious to it. Unlike you, poor, sensitive, music-loving soul that you are, they have learned long ago to tune it out. You, the only person in the restaurant who wants P&Q with his meal, are the only one who hears the lack of it.

That's why I refer to all background music as audible wallpaper. It's there, it often helps to set the scene, so to speak, but most people aren't even aware of it. Except in supermarkets.

Music in supermarkets is not intended to be background music, even though it may sound like background music. What it is is a grand conspiracy against you—a carefully contrived instrument of persuasion to get you to do what the store management wants you to do. Of course, they always want to you to buy things, but the music tells you how to buy things. If it's slow and languorous, it's saying "Take your time, you've got all day. Look around, maybe you'll find a few more things you think you can't live without." That's its message during the morning hours, when there isn't much store traffic. But later in the day, when the store is getting a bit crowded, they don't want you to dawdle. They want you to come in, buy them out, and leave so you won't block other shoppers' access to the merchandise. That's when the music gets fast and bouncy, so you'll move your fanny likewise. And in case you don't get the point, they also do things to the music to make you want to flee from it as speedily as possible, like repeating the same four notes over and over like a hung-up record for the entire five-minute duration of a number, or by taking some hallowed piece like Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" or a dreamy number that reminds you of your first and best love, and rendering it like something by The Grateful Dead.

There may even be times when you want to hear music reverberating metallically from one end of the shopping mall to the other, and if you're not too picky about what kind of music it is, you may on occasion find yourself actively enjoying it wherever you are. But whether you're receptive or not, the ubiquity of this stuff is taking its toll—slowly, inexorably—on your ability to enjoy any music at all. And you don't even know it's happening. Sure, it sounds pleasant, and what's the matter with that? But as with heroin, the more you enjoy its pleasures, the more of it you need to get the same amount of pleasure (footnote 2).

The problem with audible wallpaper is not so much that it debases music, but that it inures the listener to it. The ability to derive sheer joy from any kind of music becomes eroded over time, until the only thing that can even arouse the listener's interest is the loud, the frenzied, or the cacophonous. After a diet of that, the only thing of interest is the louder, the more frenzied, and the cacaphonouser.

Ah, but you've somehow managed to escape the consequences of audible wallpaper, eh? Well, consider your own listening habits. Do you ever listen attentively to anything you could describe as quiet or peaceful music? Sure, you'll put it on as a background while you're reading or working at a seduction or carving your scrimshaw walrus. But listen to it? (Think of one such record you own. How many of the six-odd titles on each side can you name? Oh yeah, you pay real good attention!) Yet that is exactly the kind of music our forefathers thought of when they heard Shakespeare's line about music soothing the savage breast, footnote 3). They were able to find solace and revitalization in that kind of music; we have been rendered immune to it. The sound of Christmas carolers no longer comes upon a midnight clear; it comes to us nonstop from 9 AM to closing time, through raucous horn loudspeakers from an amplifier running on one lung, every shopping day from Thanksgiving to December 25th.

And what's so sad about this is that we're not even aware of what we've lost.

A whole genre of music has already been stolen from us because of our constant exposure to it. And the few of us who care, perhaps because we remember the almost transcendental joy we found in such music before we were deluged by its cheap and endless imitations, are powerless to stop or even to slow this erosion of our favorite muse.

Constant repetition can diminish our ability to respond to even the most rousing music, and CD, like every new recording technology in the past, has brought us a veritable flood of adrenalin generators. After 15 listens, the Berlioz Requiem is just another messe, the Pines of Rome seem wooden, Le Sacre du Printemps no longer sounds rite, Pachelbel's Canon is shot to hell, the "Ride of the Valkyries" seems pedestrian, Carmina Burana is orfful, and Pictures at an Exhibition can go hang as far as we care any more. The record companies are rapidly running out of sonic blockbusters with which to jar our jaded sensibilities. Bach and Beethoven and Mozart still have appeal, though it is more an intellectual than an emotional appeal. They, too, are losing their ability to move us.

Perhaps this wholesale debasement of music through mindless repetition accounts for the generally threadbare performances on most classical recordings today. There is no passion, no commitment, in the performances of such as Herbert von Karajan, Pierre Boulez, and Seiji Ozawa. Have they, too, become so sated with music that the act of making it is nothing more than a spiritless task—a job, like the making of tires or tin cans or typewriters? Could this, too, be because they, like us, can find no respite from music in our wired Western world?

Let's put a stop to this madness. Let us write to the National Historic Trust, lobby our congressmen, and pressure the Sierra Club to get music declared an endangered art form, with the full protection of the law, and total banishment from all public places except those where people go specifically to listen to music. (Even putting batteries into a ghetto blaster in a public place should draw a mandatory death penalty. The punishment for turning it on should be harsher.)

Pushing through a law like that won't be easy, I can tell you. Do-gooders believe anyone has the right to spray his personal choice of music all over the landscape, and that everyone else has the right to enjoy it; businesspeople see public music as a way of promoting sales. (The only person more persistent than a do-gooder on the march is a merchandiser on the make.) Appeals to reason and commonsense, such as "People who like public music are less annoyed by its absence than people who don't are annoyed by its presence," are fruitless. No one would listen, even if they could make sense of a statement as convoluted as that. Your appeals to reason will be turned off, like the other kind of audible wallpaper.

But let's not give up so easily. Go to it, music lovers—join the campaign for this worthy cause. And while you're at it, try getting God, money, avarice, and motherhood outlawed. Your chances are just about as good.

Perhaps the reason I mourn for the loss of one of the joys of my youth is simply the usual old-fart unwillingness to accept the inevitability of change in an ever-changing world. But I find it hard to believe that human nature has been so transformed in a single generation that it no longer has need for the other side of music—its quiet, introspective, gentling side. And I wonder: What kind of music will we lose the ability to enjoy next? Could all of the so-called "classical" repertoire be next, simply because it isn't loud, or abrasive, or violent enough to stimulate our atrophied sensibilities?

Will we miss it when it's gone? Will anyone even care whether we do or not? I hope so. But don't ask me if I think so.

Footnote 1: One of my favorite platitudes is "Anything in moderation is all right, including moderation."—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: There is a hypothesis that there is only a certain number of times to which you can listen to any piece of music—the number being dependent on a number of factors, not the least of which is the skill of the composer—before it ceases to have any emotional impact. My friend Ivor Humphreys of Gramophone refers to this in connection with most rock music as "Having a sell-by date."—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: It was not "beast," as you thought you remembered from High School English. Woody Allen had it right!—J. Gordon Holt