Nigella Lawson says that the thump of loud music now found in some of the most fashionable (and expensive) restaurants leaves her unable to taste her food. She says she is “allergic to all noise including music in shops and restaurants… It is utterly draining. And it drowns out the taste of food. I’ve always presumed that these decisions are made by people who feel uncomfortable without noise”.
Paul Askew, Chef Patron of the Art School in Liverpool, said that “great food needs to be tasted in a softer, more gentle environment” and that he tries in his restaurants to “create an oasis of calm and a sanctuary of restoration for the soul”.
I’ve dined at the Art School, and Askew has indeed created a lovely ambience in which to enjoy his innovative and beautifully prepared dishes. The sad reality is that it is now a surprise when you go into a restaurant, pub or café that doesn’t use piped music.
How do you feel about torture by muzak?
If it’s getting to you, there is a website you should look at (and from where I borrowed my first two paragraphs) called Pipedown – the campaign for freedom from piped music.
It’s not that I dislike music. On the contrary, I love music of many kinds – music played by real live people, that is. But I object to having music forced upon me; I do not want it coming out of a speaker a few feet from my head; it genuinely makes me feel ill. I have frequently asked for it to be turned down, or preferably turned off, and I have walked out of pubs and taken my wallet elsewhere. Like the alleged charm of Boris Johnson, I just don’t get it. Has any customer, anywhere, ever begged for the volume to be turned up? Is it for the benefit of the staff? Or do they hate it just as much as we do? Wasn’t that denounced as torture in Guantanamo Bay? How they must dread the coming of Christmas.
Once I have noticed the piped music I struggle to block it out. I cannot concentrate on reading a newspaper or the menu, or on the most mundane conversation. On our last holiday to Greece we visited a delightful beach where there were four tavernas offering sunbeds and a drinks service for few euros. But they all insisted on pumping music at you. I would not have minded so much if it had been traditional rembetika; but it was generic sub-Ibiza, made-on-a-laptop crap. I couldn’t read my book, I couldn’t relax. We had to go somewhere else. (Then there was the drunken Romanian clown who just would not stop talking at high volume, even when his compatriots were bored by his antics. But that is another problem. For God’s sake, will you ever shut up?)
I suspect that those who enjoy, or can even tolerate this imposition, are not very musical. As Nigella calls them, “people who feel uncomfortable without noise”. I admit to being a grumpy old man. But there is another problem.
I have tinnitus
It seems to have started after we came back from holiday in Thailand, seven or eight years ago. Although most people don’t talk about it, I have since realised that it is a widespread problem – especially for people in their 50s and above. With all this background noise, we cannot hear what people are saying. It is annoying and distressing. It is, in fact, a recognised disability issue. And therein lies hope for the future.
The Equality Act of 2010 “requires service providers to make a reasonable adjustment for disabled people to make sure that they are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people. This may include… accommodating requests for communications to be conducted in a particular format”. Pointing out the Act’s implications could lead pubs and restaurants to reconsider their use of piped music. Individuals who fall into one of the “invisibly disabled”’ categories can challenge them, uncomfortable as they may feel about doing so.
We live in a noisy world – well, I do anyway. I live in London with aeroplanes flying over my head every few minutes, and with neighbours who, one after the other, have built loft rooms and garden extensions. The street has always been a building site. And it continues into the weekend, so you can’t escape by getting a job!
I believe that, as a society, we have become desensitised to noise. What is it doing to our brains?
On a recent holiday to Romania we took a walk in a national park, ending up in a meadow 1500 metres above sea level. It was completely quiet. No cars, no planes, just the occasional bird or insect. What a beautiful, memorable day. Of course, I am not expecting total silence in our towns, just a greater understanding and respect for other people’s need for quiet. As with single-use plastic, a few pioneers might make a difference. I wonder what David Attenborough’s hearing is like?
For more information – with thanks to pressure group Pipedown – download and read this factsheet on Piped Music.