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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Barenboim hits out at 'sound of Muzak'
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Daniel Barenboim says people don't actively listen to music enough
Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim is to launch a campaign against Muzak - the background music which for many has become the inescapable soundtrack to daily life.

The 63-year-old musical director of the Chicago Symphony is delivering this year's BBC Reith Lectures, the flagship broadcast series now in its 59th year.

In his second lecture, to be broadcast next week, Barenboim argues that too often we hear music over which we have no control and too infrequently do we listen to music of our own choice.

"Active listening is absolutely essential," he says.

He says that Muzak is largely responsible for encouraging people not just to "neglect" the ear but to "repress" it.

"If we are allowed an old term to speak of musical ethics, it is absolutely offensive," he says.

Music as a commodity

Strictly speaking, Muzak is a trade name for the system of delivering music to many parts of a building simultaneously, but it has come to stand for a whole genre of music "piped" into businesses, restaurants, shops, hotels, and transport hubs.

Muzak started in 1920s when General George Squires patented the process of transmitting music over electrical lines
The name is a combination of "music" and "Kodak", Squires' favourite hi-tech firm
It is known as elevator music because of its early use in skyscrapers to calm people's nerves
In the 1940s, it was used as a musical way of relaxing workers with the aim of improving productivity
Barenboim says music must not be used as a commodity to manipulate human thoughts and emotions.

But Michelle Colyar-Cooper, an "audio architect" specialising in classical music at the Muzak corporation, rejects the idea that somehow, she and her colleagues are responsible for a "dumbing down of music".

In defence of her industry, she points to the 20th Century composer Erik Satie, who she says wrote classical music in some respects and in some pieces to be more of an "aural background".

"He was perhaps the first person ever to think of the fact that you did not have to actively listen to every note and pay close attention to it - it was more of a mood enhancer - so we're just elaborating on Satie," she told the BBC News website.

Background music is used extensively in supermarkets
"We try to pick a piece that we feel is representative of an emotion - that's what we are after, to create an emotion in the listener."

She argues that she and her colleagues could be doing the classical music world a service by exposing more and more people to it.

"We get a fair number of phone calls every day from people who have heard something and want to know what it was - there will be a segment of the population that will seek out something that has touched them."

Powerful stuff

David Hargreaves, a music psychologist at Roehampton University in London, says the whole argument hinges on the question of what music is for.

Musicians aim to create "peak experiences" for the audience
"Daniel Barenboim's argument is that the aesthetic functions of music are paramount - that as a musician, you have to achieve the highest possible levels of artistic expression and communication. But that means you have to say music can't be used in other ways and that's something others will disagree with.

He says that while there is evidence that all kinds of music at its highest level can create "peak experiences", in which audiences experience physiological reactions - shivers down the spine, sweating - other forms of music can serve a useful purpose.


"Music has many functions, social, aesthetic, cognitive, emotional - it's very powerful stuff and we're only just starting to understand it," says Professor Hargreaves.

Muzak was known as elevator music because of its early use in skyscrapers
He says that recent research done by his department and other psychologists shows that for many people about 40% of their waking lives involves music in some way or another.

"It really is all around us," he says. "And we are finding more and more that people don't necessarily always want the high-level aesthetic experience. It has a much more functional use.

People are increasingly using music to control their own moods and emotions - they don't just passively respond to it."

Mixed opinions

So what do people really feel about the background music that increasingly invades our daily lives.

BBC News website reporter Becky Branford took a straw-poll of tourists and businessmen in a busy hotel district in the heart of London's West End. Many said they found Muzak irritating but others said it had an enjoyable, calming affect.

"It depends on the music," said Sue, a tourist from Los Angeles. "If it's elevator music it annoys me - but if people take the trouble to make the music interesting, it can be nice."

Ray a businessman from Northern Ireland, said he found it "tiresome".

"Unless it's music I like, I don' t really want to hear it. Inspirational music, I find does lift my spirits."

Tracy, who worked at one of the hotels had this to say: "I find it quite irritating actually - although some of the classical music's quite nice, I do enjoy that."

Abiyadou, a businessman from Nigeria was more enthusiastic.

"It's good, it's very good. Very nice. The classical music is not too loud - it's nice and gentle. Yes, it definitely relaxes me," he said.

But theatre director Nick's comments would strike a chord with Barenboim.

"I think there's something drone-like and quite mundane and repressive about Muzak. It does suffocate and stifle you, it does get in the way of individuality."

The Reith Lectures 2006 can be heard every Friday at 9am from 7 April until 5 May on Radio 4. They are repeated on Saturdays (April 8-May 6) at 10.15pm. You can listen online, read transcripts and download the lectures at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith

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