Prediction: “Noise Control” will become the next front in Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s long-running fight to stomp, smother, and regulate the fun out of New York City. Having first come for the smokers, the salt-lovers, and the soda slurpers, this piece in the New York Times defines the battle:
Across New York City, in restaurants and bars, but also in stores and gyms, loud noise has become a fact of life in the very places where people have traditionally sought respite from urban stress. The New York Times measured noise levels at 37 restaurants, bars, stores and gyms across the city and found levels that experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them.
It never occurred to the correspondent that maybe people like to unwind at venues with a bit of life. But as any good Times reader knows, the free will and the free market are illusions, and background music is in fact part of a greater capitalist conspiracy to keep the masses fat and drunk:
Some research has shown that people drink more when music is loud; one study found that people chewed faster when tempos were sped up. Armed with this knowledge, some bars, retailers and restaurants are finely tuning sound systems, according to audio engineers and restaurant consultants.
Indeed. We should ban this sort of thing because what New York needs right now is for those remaining people with money to spend less of it.
The Prick doesn’t particularly like noisy venues, nor does he like smoky ones. But just as forcing smokers out onto the street has hurt nightlife, so too will forcing venue owners to turn down the volume, which is inevitably where this is headed. This has all the hallmarks of another public health beat-up in the making and as such must be fought vigorously: How long before bar staff are forced to wear industrial ear protection (think of when Bloomberg’s nannies attempts to make sushi masters and Michelin-starred chefs wear plastic gloves as if they were lunch ladies)? I can already see the “Inside Voices!” public health campaign and hear the “experts” claiming that hearing damage “costs the economy $36 billion a year”.
Surely this attitude is about reelection and giving the concerned middle class something to be concerned about?
I have already remarked, with all the restraint that I could command, that of all modern phenomena, the most monstrous and ominous, the most manifestly rotting with disease, the most grimly prophetic of destruction, the most clearly and unmistakably inspired by evil spirits the most instantly and awfully overshadowed by the wrath of heaven, the most near to madness and moral chaos, the most vivid with devilry and despair, is the practice of having to listen to loud music while eating a meal in a restaurant… Also, as I have often pointed out, it is rude to everybody concerned. It is as if I went to hear Paderewski or Kreisler, at a concert, and started to spread out an elegant supper in front of me, with oysters and pigeon-pie and champagne, coffee and liqueurs. One is an insult to the cook and the other to the musician…
Oh, ahem, I never remarked that at all. It was Chesterton.
And what a shrewd and profound soul he was.
It’s an interesting and somewhat vexed issue.
For some years I worked with a company that actually installed “background music systems”. Many venues of all sorts have them. They serve to add “something” to otherwise acoustically inert spaces. “Elevator music” is a term of derision when applied to a performance, but the selection of melodies and arrangements in the classic “Muzak” (TM) style was done with some purpose in mind. That purpose, I suspect, was to fill in the awkward silence often found in a lift full of strangers, with an exceptionally “innocuous” acoustic atmosphere.
When I am at the workbench, I like to have music playing; anything from “Weather Report” to Beethovent, depending on my mood or the nature of the task. When I am at the keyboard, I tend to go with classical or “after-midnight” jazz. At least I get to choose the material and volume, unlike the folk in a lift or bar, for example. Music, being a sublimely aesthetic thing, can enhance or mar any experience.
An interesting cultural note: For some years, I was working intermittently in south-East Asia, particularly Viet Nam. Quite often the “background” music at a bar or restaurant would be somewhat louder than I thought desirable. However, my hosts would be cheerfully conversing, a little louder than normally, through the cacophony. Eventually I worked out an interesting hypothesis: Vietnamese is a tonal language: “flat”, rising, falling, rising/falling, “stopped” etc tones are an essential part of the language. In this, it is similar to Chinese and Thai. Just as one can pick out and follow, say, the bass line or some counterpoint detail in a complex piece of music, speakers of tonal languages appear to be able to filter out the conversation from quite extreme noise.
This is a field that could spill forth a plethora of PhD dissertations. Check out the amazing stuff in a great book: “Musicophilia”, by Oliver Sacks.