The Perils of Public Music


There used to be a lot of mockery about Muzak, that bland public music that took popular tunes like I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, removed the drums, and added violins and a zither. Its mediocrity was intended to soothe, but for people who actually like music, it served mostly to irritate. I don’t know if Muzak still exists. But if the corporate entity has faded, its inane heritage carries on with a vengeance.

Public music wears on the nerves. Airlines have decided that their passengers want to hear it as they get on and off the plane. Perhaps they believe that the hostilities going on as passengers hunt for space to shove their carry-ons will be somehow mitigated by jazz. I admit to being amused by the contrast of the activities going on above my head while saxophones pretend that everyone’s having a good time. Maybe the airline executives have a previously unsuspected sense of humor.

Hotels play music in their public spaces, and the selections are clearly chosen to set the correct tone of Fashionability and Chic. At the last place we stayed—iced-in while the airport was closed for two days—the effect was surreal. A colleague described it as Bollywood on acid. Even at 4 in the morning, during a discussion with the desk clerk over whether the gym was open, the empty lobby resonated with a strange undulating sound that created a vague feeling of nausea.

In the public rooms outside of a conference, the tinkling sound of wind chimes and synthesized chanting interferes with serious thinking, and creates a mental discord between the reality of work and the unattainability of vacation.

At resort hotels, the soothing sound of surf is covered up by the incessant beat of techno-funk. Inside the hotel lobby, however, you can hear the sound of waves, but only embedded in the Tibetan chimes of corporate spa music.

Travel, particularly business travel, is stressful. You are away from home and family and dogs. The TSA has put its hands all over your self and your stuff. Your feet hurt. You packed for the wrong climate. You haven’t finished writing your speech when the leading expert on the topic will be on the panel. Your flight is delayed and you may miss a conference call with your boss. Your cell phone battery is low. You are breathing stale air from plane, airport, and hotel conference rooms. You’re eating unhealthy food, and the gym was closed when you tried to work out. The airport announcements blare at you, and neon signs invite you to eat delicious unhealthy things. At times like these, you need your thoughts to yourself. So a word to people who control the volume: Just turn it off.

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