“There will be fewer annoying and repetitious recorded announcements,’ Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, promised in a recent white paper, as the government takes back control of the railways and privately run franchises are sidelined. The scale of the problem was illustrated on a recent journey of two hours and 33 minutes from Manchester to London. Passengers were subjected to 17 automated messages, including three helpings of what has been described as the most irritating (not to mention unhelpful to foreign visitors) slogan in the history of British transport: ‘See it, say it, sorted’. There were also four live messages, advising passengers on how to buy refreshments and urging them not to walk down the aisle unnecessarily. The train’s PA system was activated on average every seven minutes.
Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat former transport minister and a regular traveller from Lewes station in East Sussex, spoke with exasperation of the ‘inanity of announcements’ he had heard. He was once informed ‘that there is no skateboarding allowed at the station. Well, I’ve never seen someone skateboarding at the station. Maybe we’ll have an announcement that elephants aren’t allowed at the station.’ He added: ‘People seem to be incapable of having a space without filling it with noise.’ As chief executive of Transport Focus, an independent watchdog, Anthony Smith sees the comments of passengers who have felt strongly enough to submit formal complaints. Extracts from the logs include: ‘Just pure noise pollution’; ‘Buzzers going off every time the doors open and close. Trains survived without these for over a century and people managed to get on and off without difficulty.’ Another passenger spoke of his favourite: an announcement to passengers in a quiet carriage reminding them that it was meant to be quiet.
As the relevant minister clearly can decree peace and quiet in one area under government control, this example sets a precedent for demanding that the Minister for Health does the same in hospitals, banning piped music and television so that patients, the ultimate captive audience, are not tormented by inescapable noise.
Only 34% of returning pub customers actually want piped music
According to a recent Yougov survey, only 34% of customers actually want to find piped music in their local pubs when they reopen next week. (Meals are what most pub-goers really want.) The other 66% of those questioned either do not care or positively dislike such added noise. As shouting over piped music helps spread the Coronavirus further – the more you exhale the greater the aerosol you produce – publicans should take note. Piped music is both unhealthy and unwanted.
A recent report in JASA, the Journal for the Acoustic Society of America for 30 November 2020 confirms earlier findings (see post of 24 June 2020) that increased background noise, especially indoors, helps spread Covid-19. People who raise their voices over loud background noise exhale far more virus-laden particles than people talking softly in quiet places. ‘Elevated vocal effort has been shown to increase emission of potentially infectious respiratory droplets, which can remain airborne for up to several hours. Multiple confirmed clusters of COVID-19 transmission were associated with settings where elevated vocal effort is generally required for communication, often due to high ambient noise levels, including crowded bars and restaurants… Clusters of COVID-19 transmission have been frequently reported in each of these settings. ‘ The JASA article did not look at the different types of background noise but piped music is often the loudest and most prevalent type of background noise. This finding ties in with the Scottish government’s attempts to get pubs and restaurants to turn off their piped music. As the pandemic has not yet abated, it seems more than ever time to mute the muzac!
Tesco, still the largest supermarket chain in Britain, was for long free of muzac in most of its branches, except at Christmas when its stores were filled with a cacophony that upset staff and customers alike. Unfortunately its newly installed CEO Ken Murphy has recently made an ill-advised and retrograde decision to instal piped music in its renovated ‘Extra and Superstore’ branches. They have a new system to play music over the tannoy when this is not being used for announcements. They claim that ‘the feedback we have received on this has been positive’ although they ‘understand this may not be the case for all of our customers.’ This is a huge understatement.
Write to its CEO Mr Ken Murphy at email@example.com urging him to rethink this policy. It departs sharply from the more enlightened approach of his predecessor, who was starting to introduce ‘quiet hours’.
Point out that more people in general dislike piped music than like it, according to all impartial opinion polls. Add that people with any sort of disability – ME, Aspergers, autism, tinnitus, hyperacusis and those with general hearing problems, who make up 16% of the population – find piped music acutely distressing. Tesco could be accused of discriminating against the disabled by forcing music on its customers and on its staff. (Many people who work in shops hate piped music too but are powerless to protest.)
Add that having to wear masks makes communication far more difficult anyway.
And finally that you are likely to spend far more time and money in a quieter environment, such as that at Lidl, Aldi and Waitrose, all without piped music.
A series of studies, chiefly from Oxford University, underline the benefits of silence not only at breakfast but at any time of day. Charles Spence, a psychologist/gastrophysicist at Oxford, says that if any meal should be eaten in silence, it is breakfast. While dinner is often a social activity, silent breakfasts help reduce ‘the sensory overload’ in ways similar to meditation. Studies show that our brains and bodies react to periods of silence as they do to meditation, with lowered stress hormones and breathing rates. This tends to increase levels of concentration and mental calm later. But silent breaks can be of benefit throughout the day.
‘In recent months people have begun to appreciate the appeal of silence in their lives’, said Dr Julie Darbyshire of Oxford’s SILENCE project, which looked at the effects of quiet on hospital patients. ‘There are potentially massive health gains from everyone having a bit of quiet time.’ Hospital wards are often noisy places, with slamming doors, (medical) alarms and noise from other patients and staff creating decibel levels of 85 plus, like a busy restaurant, [even before extra noise in the form of piped music or television] is introduced. ‘Noise is a distraction and stressor and a quiet, calm environment is definitely better for patients and staff in hospitals’, Darbyshire said. ‘We found that patients were in a chronic state of alertness when hospital alarms were constantly sounding… Complete silence has a calming effect.’
Quietness has more general benefits. Retreating into quiet for two hours a day can boost cognitive ability by triggering the creation of new cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain linked to learning and memory. Listening to classical music [when freely chosen] can help lower heart rates and blood pressure. Cardiologists have also discovered that a two-minute silence between each piece has a ‘dramatic effect on relieving tension in the body and mind.’
Silence can even help you lose weight. Scientists at Brigham Young University, Colorado, have found that being able to hear the sounds you make when eating – all that chewing and chomping! -– means consuming fewer calories. One trial showed that those listening to loud music ate on average four pretzels while those eating in silence consumed only 2.75 pretzels. Professor Jeff Brunstrom at Bristol University has discovered that people distracted by noise at one meal tend to eat more at the next.
Pipedowners are scattered all over the British Isles – quite a few in fact live abroad – making any meetings difficult. But, as the Covid crisis has demonstrated, virtual meetings through Zoom or something similar are now very feasible. These could be held every month or so to discuss our latest tactics against piped music.
If you might be interested in taking part, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org Not all members like the idea of such meetings of course, and a quorum is needed to make it worthwhile.
If you have not already done so, do sign our petition against forced music in hospitals by clicking the link below. Although set up some time ago, the petition now has a new and urgent relevance with the threat from ‘Dr Rock’ (see entry 1 July) to blast rock music through hospitals, We need a lot more signatures to make a real impact.
Research from the University of Oxford and the University of Leicester (published in Environmental Research 17 August 2020) has found that people who live close to noisy roads are more likely to be obese. Data from more than half a million people living in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands ‘revealed an association between those living in high traffic-noise areas and obesity at a 2 per cent increase in obesity… for every 10dB of added noise,’ according to Samuel Cai,the main author and senior epidemiologist at Oxford, even after taking into account air pollution, smoking, diet and levels of exercise. More than 100 million people in Europe live in areas where traffic noise is greater than 55dB, the health threshold set by the EU. Anna Hansell, a co-author, said: ‘The hypothesis goes that noise is a general environmental stressor, so it’s going to be raising your cortisol levels, like any other form of stress. We know that is more likely to give you central obesity, because it predisposes you to store the weight around your middle.’
This is further evidence that noise, sometimes still seen as a minor irritant, is a major health risk due to the stress it brings. (Stress also depresses the immune system and raises blood pressure). Piped music has much the same ill effects as traffic noise. Both are often unwanted and inescapable.
As the UK prepares to reopen most shops, pubs, restaurants and clubs, there is some welcome if unexpected advice to help stop any resurgence of the virus in public places: Turn the music down! The advice comes with the belated recognition that loud music makes diners and drinkers talk – indeed, shout – louder than they would otherwise. And when shouting or talking loudly, you spray far more saliva around a space than when talking at a more normal volume. As problems with Covid-19 look likely to persist for some time, restaurants and pubs should take note of this new safeguard for their customers. Otherwise, lockdown may return!
The real message is: piped music helps spread Covid-19 (and probably other viruses too.) So turn it off, or at least right down.
A new study shows that 80% of people have cut short their visit to a pub, café or restaurant because of noise, while 75% say they would eat out more often if places were quieter. The new survey comes from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID). In 2016 AHL urged restaurants to turn the music down – and the lighting levels up – to create a better environment for people with hearing problems, who make up some 15% of the population. About 30% of the population is unusually sensitive to background noise without necessarily having hearing problems. As a result of this survey, Mumbli, a company that ranks venues on their acoustic quality, is to launch a campaign to develop ‘Michelin star style’ system to rate the ‘sound aura’ of venues across the UK. The new system combines acoustics, reverberation time and other data to mark London’s venues. So far they have measured noise in about 300 places, mostly around Shoreditch in east London. They aim to measure another 1,000 places in London and the UK in 2020.
The survey reinforces the point that piped music, a major contributor to noise in pubs etc, repels rather than attracts customers. Hence the success of Wetherspoons and Sam Smiths pubs, both of which shun piped music.
(This entry, which was posted before the closure of all pubs, restaurants etc on 20th March, may lack relevance now. But when pubs along with everything else finally reopen, it will be as pertinent as ever.)