Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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November 2001

Song Stress

Sounding off about background music

On a recent sunny, Indian summer day, a group of friends and I decided to enjoy the weather at Ostersee, near Seeshaupt. We were among a very few people who strolled quietly through the grounds that surround the lake. We marched contentedly over the meadows and through the woods, in silent reverie, appreciating the peacefulness of the forest. The snapping of twigs and chirping of birds that had not yet headed for their winter resorts accompanied us. After a while, our out-of-shape, “city” bodies demanded a break. We followed the signs to a beer garden, the terrace of which offered a glorious view of the area. Apart from one cheerful family, we had the quaint rest stop to ourselves. The experience should have been uplifting and relaxing—and would have been, had the beer garden owners not infused the calm atmosphere with yodels supplied by Radio Alpenwelle. This is a station that features tasteless Bavarian pop and folk music, which even Oktoberfest revelers might find unendurable. First, we coped by making fun of it. Then we tried to talk over it. But, finally, the accordion-accented noise pollution—“Mein Lieeeeebling, Du bist mein Sterrrrrn”—drove us back, deep into the woods.

Escaping the musical disturbance in the countryside presented no difficulty, but in the city there is no forest in which we can seek refuge. In restaurants, department stores, the local bakery, taxis, supermarkets and even in the sewer system (see News and Views)—music is everywhere. Most often, the volume is turned up so high, it is impossible ignore. I have reached a point at which I get the urge to flee if I dislike the musical accompaniment—which means I’ve deserted a good many public places without concluding whatever business brought me there in the first place. Recently, i was in Munich’s pedestrian zone, shopping for a birthday present. In the first store I stopped in, I was driven out by bad, loud music. I quickly moved on to the next retailer. There, I was accosted by the next few verses of the same song. In a third shop, I was haunted by the final chords of that same grating melody. It was then that I began to wonder whether these stores had signed a contract to air the broadcasts of one particular radio station—“This is KRAP, Munich’s Royally Annoying Playlist.”

Background music is, of course, not new. In the 1930s, George Owen Squier sold music programs to companies that sought methods to increase worker productivity. This successful concept was soon branded “Muzak,” and was used to bolster consumer spending and employee output. The rules of Muzak were straightforward: avoid brash vocals, stress string instruments. Muzak has been the subject of numerous studies: one proved that diners would linger longer in restaurants if the background music played there was slow, another revealed that human reaction time could be shortened through the playing of Muzak. Scientists also claimed the droning ditties had a positive effect on human immune systems.

Still, the masses rebelled. Critics saw acoustic architecture in public places as an intrusion on privacy. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization gathered a group of professional musicians who supported consumers’ rights to spend in silence. Violinist Yehudi Menuin was one of the most vehement opponents of background music in public places. Even U.S. appliance giant Westinghouse began to question the sales tool shortly after purchasing the Muzak Company in the 1980s. The firm investigated Muzak’s potential for brainwashing, a reaction to rumors that the generic songs might contain “whispered” subliminal messages.

These concerns have all but vanished since then. Music in public places is more present (and louder) than ever. It seems that shops and cafés have forgotten the golden rule: music is meant to sooth the savage shopper—not give young part-time employees something to dance to. I would never dare suggest a ban on music or sound installations from public life. We should be free to listen to whatever music we choose, even if this freedom sometimes leads to a clash of tastes. So, in the lead-up to the holidays, I will prepare myself for Wham’s “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart”—and other irritating songs from the yule season repertoire. It will be hard, but toughing it out will prove that, for me, shopping for gifts is a true labor of love. Perhaps earplugs should top my wish list.

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