Roger Scruton, the philosopher and composer, lambasted ubiquitous piped background music in a A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 on 13th November. He pointed out that such music is often not even made by human beings but by computers. ‘The background sounds of modern life are therefore less and less human. Rhythm… has been largely replaced by electrical pulses, produced by a machine programmed to repeat itself ad infinitum, and to thrust its booming bass notes into the very bones of the victim. 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. There are two reasons why this vacuous music has flown into every public space. One is the vast change in the human ear brought about by the mass production of sound. The other is the failure of the law to protect us from the result. For our ancestors music was something that you sat down to listen to, or which you made for yourself. It was a ceremonial event, in which you participated, either as a passive listener or as an active performer. Either way you were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.With the advent of … the radio and now the iPod, music is no longer something that you must make for yourself, nor is it something that you sit down to listen to. It follows you about wherever you go, and you switch it on as a background. It is not so much listened to as overheard.’
Many people share his feelings, especially about the lack of laws to protect innocent people in public places, although not everyone would follow him when he says ‘pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography’s on sex – all that is beautiful, special and full of love is replaced by a grinding mechanism.’ (But Scruton does not damn all rock music, praising Electrica for example.)
On a positive note, he applauds attempts to teach young people classical music (something threatened by cuts in funding that encourage a ‘Gradgrind’ approach to education, ignoring the real yet unquantifiable benefits of the humanities). By getting children and teenagers to learn an instrument or just sing together, they can rediscover the real value of music and silence and so their own imperilled humanity.