Recently, during a particularly long wait at the dentist’s office, I was subjected to a non-stop cocktail of soft rock hits from the 70s. For 45 minutes I was serenaded by the likes of Jim Croce, Minnie Ripperton and Bread while I alternated between praying for respite and considering running out the door to save my sanity.
We’re all familiar with it. Whether in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, on an elevator or while grocery shopping, the canned music is inescapable. But changes might be underway, as Pipedown, the International Campaign for Freedom from Piped Music, is trying to eliminate the proliferation of canned music in public spaces.
The Pipedown story
The movement started almost 25 years ago in the UK, when author and environmentalist Nigel Rodgers was having dinner in a restaurant. He noticed that he couldn’t hear his dining companion clearly due to the piped music, but when he complained, he found that none of the restaurant staff were able turn off the music. An idea began to form, and Pipedown UK was born. The organization that grew slowly from local origins has now expanded to include movements in multiple countries.
Rodgers doesn’t mince words when it comes to what he sees as the evils of canned music. “It’s mood-conditioning by business, trying to manipulate us into buying or doing what it wants,” he says. “It’s also a constant over-stimulation that leaves us afraid of silence.”
Pipedown’s approach to what they see as the problem of canned music is twofold. To truly get to the bottom of the overuse of canned music, first it is necessary to address the psychological reasons why retailers, restaurants and other establishments play the music in the first place. Second, and perhaps most important, is the question of when does the music, annoying to many, cross over from being a minor nuisance to being a health hazard?
What is the purpose of all this noise?
So, why do establishments play it in the first place? Does it mask other sounds? Does it make people spend more money? Does it make people get in and out faster? Depending on the music, does it make the establishment look cooler or more hip? The answer is yes to all of the above. Although many find canned music to be nothing but noise pollution, retailers, restaurants and other public spaces play music in order to define their brand, attract customers (especially those businesses that rely on foot traffic) and increase sales.
Think of the last time you went to a shopping mall. Fast paced, hip music was probably blaring out of certain stores in order to draw in and energize younger customers. A large, upscale department store, however, might have been playing softer, more relaxing classical music to encourage customers to browse longer and buy more. And when dining out, a restaurant that wants to turn tables over quickly will employ a loud, thumping soundtrack to discourage lingering conversation and move diners toward the exit faster.
But beyond the psychology of why the music is played in the first place, medical science says the health effects of canned music are worth paying attention to. An inescapable barrage of unwanted music can increase stress, thus increasing levels of cortisol which in turn increases risk of heart attacks or strokes. It can also raise blood pressure while depressing the immune system. That feeling of helplessness when it comes to escaping the music can also lead to anxiety and depression, as shown by a study at the University of Nottingham. In the study, 115 blood donors were exposed to unwanted music prior to donating blood, and were found to be more anxious prior to donating and more likely to be depressed afterward.
Another problem with canned music is that it adds to the growing epidemic of noise pollution that is increasing the risk of hearing loss worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, and another 1.1 billion young people are at risk. And for those who already have hearing loss, such as those with presbycusis, canned music is especially problematic. Canned music along with other background noise makes it extremely difficult for those with hearing loss to hear the sounds they actually want to hear, such as conversation.
Your ears simply can’t handle as much noise as you think they can.
Dr. Daniel Fink, MD, interim chair of the Quiet Communities Health Advisory Council and founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, has addressed the commonly held perception that the standard 85 decibel level is safe for everyday life, when in fact that 85 decibels was meant to be an occupational noise exposure standard. He points out that in quieter societies whose members aren’t exposed to excessive noise levels, presbycusis is not prevalent. Another problem? Currently there are no federal safe noise standards for public places.
With growing awareness of hearing health matters and noise pollution, Pipedown is an idea whose time has finally come. And Rodgers work with Pipedown UK over the last 25 years is a testament to the power of persistence. Despite the movement’s slow growth since 1992, and despite a failed protest outside of Selfridges Department Store in the UK, Rodgers has continued to get the word out about the annoyances and perils of canned music.
Making a difference
Thus far, Pipedown UK has been instrumental in getting Gatwick Airport to eliminate canned music in public areas, and convinced Waterstones Booksellers to begin phasing it out. In addition, grocery retailers Sainsbury and Tesco agreed to forgo installing music in their stores as well. And finally, in June of 2016, Pipedown scored another major victory: After a letter writing campaign by hundreds of Pipedown’s members, one of the UK’s top department stores, Marks and Spencer, finally agreed to stop playing music in its stores.
With more than 1500 members in the UK and sister groups in Germany, Austria, New Zealand and the U.S., Pipedown is now taking its efforts to persuade retailers and other establishments to eliminate canned music to a world stage. Visit Pipedown’s website for information about the organization and to see what you can do about making changes in your area.
In the meantime, if you think excessive noise may be harming your hearing health, see a hearing care professional for a hearing test and educate yourself about the many types of noise protection devices and strategies that can help you preserve your good hearing. Hearing loss from noise exposure is common but almost completely preventable.