In “A Point of View: Why it’s time to turn the music off,” philospher Roger Scruton writes about pop music’s unrelenting assault on our ears in almost every public place today. Scruton’s concern is focused on the smothering effect banal pop music has on young people and our musical tradition, but it is his indictment on background music in public spaces that sings to those of us who crave some silence:
Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning. These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.
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And there is no law against it. You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers – pollution that poisons not the body but the soul. Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response. Background music is the default position. It is no longer silence to which we return when we cease to speak, but the empty chatter of the music-box. Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say. On the other hand, if we knew silence for what once it was, as the plastic material that is shaped by real music, then it would not frighten us at all.