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.)
Greg Scott, who lives in New York City, has developed a new app that can be used on smart phones to let people search with great precision for quiet bars, restaurants etc when in a strange city. Places are colour coded according to their tranquillity: red is for noisiest cacophony, green for soul-restoring peace. It also allows people to add their own suggestions to the data base. The app works properly only via iPhones at present -– they have effective sound meters while Androids do not – although anyone can use any type of computer to search for quiet places. A site’s location is shown on a useful small map but no other details are given as yet. Most current listings are in the USA – inevitably, as most contributors to date are American – but Greg Scott has plans to extend the data base to cover London, then the major British cities and then on to Madrid, Paris and other European cities. This new app has immense potential, for through it restaurateurs etc around the world will at last see how their places are really being rated by customers. Look at http://soundprint.co
Philip Hill, Manager of Tesco Scotland, has agreed ‘that it would be good to hold a couple of quiet times in our stores during the festive period’. The good news is that this isn’t a single hour first thing in the morning, which is all that most supermarkets have offered until now, but a whole morning from 9am – 12pm. The two quiet mornings will be Wednesday, 4th December, and Wednesday, 11th December. All Tesco stores in Scotland should be participating, including the Tesco Express stores which recently started playing music and were what sparked off Quiet Scotland’s original complaint. Clothing outlets within Tesco stores will also be included, but not coffee outlets, such as Costa. (Apparently, these need more negotiations).
This is real progress. When Quiet Scotland first started writing to supermarkets, they were either ignored us or sent a standard letter suggesting that no one else ever complained. The same response is often received across the whole UK, of course. Stores very rarely turn off their Christmas music, certainly not for a whole morning at a time. (See the previous post Christmas Cacophony Again!)
Quiet Scotland inspires us all. Wherever you live in the UK, do write to the Chief Executive, Dave Lewis. His email is email@example.com His postal address is Tesco House, Shire Park, Kestrel Way, Welwyn Garden City, UK, AL7 1GA
The BBC is testing ways of letting viewers tune out background noises, including music which is often so loud that it is foreground music. This should make dialogue easier to follow and allow the sounds of nature on wild life documentaries to be heard. A trial version on the BBC website adds a slider button as well as the overall volume control. Moving the slider to the left reduces background noises of all sorts. The project is aimed chiefly at the 11 million Britons with hearing loss but will make dialogue much more comprehensible for everybody. It will also reduce, if not eliminate, superfluous and very irritating music.
The technology, which is said to be very labour intensive, is still experimental but it could become available on Iplayer and even on broadcast television as the BBC develops a ‘personalised system of broadcasting called object-based media’.
In late 2018 the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) issued new guidelines for noise across Europe. Its chief conclusions were that current government policies and targets on noise are inadequate and out of date and that new targets need to be set. The W.H.O. recommendsedtough new limits on aircraft noise both at day and at night. Affected communities should be consulted about changes in flight paths and the construction of additional runways. The adverse effects of noise on health, with sleep deprivation leading to lack of concentration, especially among children, and to accidents at people work and while driving, are well established. New evidence has emerged to show that night time noise can cause cardiovascular disease, particularly for those living under flight paths. Even while a person is asleep, noise can cause the release of stress hormones, damaging blood vessels, including the coronary arteries. Three quarters of the population in Britain live in areas where night-time safe noise levels are exceeded. So noise really is a major health hazard, even for those not fully aware of it. Piped music, when unwanted and impossible to escape, becomes just another form of noise.
Nigella Lawson, the famous super-chef, 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.’ Many other chefs agree with her. 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.’ Oisin Rogers, who runs The Guinea Grill in Mayfair, thinks that bad music can ruin one’s appetite. ‘Canned music is often an irritant, an annoyance. It might please some folk but never all. And it is irritating. Nigella is perfectly correct. It is impossible to enjoy food while irritated.’ Although not all chefs accept this argument, a poll in The Daily Telegraph of 8th June found that 55% of respondents agreed that restaurants should stop playing music.
Welcome news appeared in the Spring 2019 magazine of the Skipton Building Society:- ‘We[the Skipton Building Society] recently gave customers the option to turn off the music and messages they’d usually hear if they were put on hold during a call to us. It was originally intended to help customers with accessibility needs who are affected by loud music. However, figures show that on average so far this year, 35% of our callers are now opting for the silent option and we’re getting great feedback from customers.’ This shows that a significant proportion of customers – not just those termed disabled – prefer silence to canned music down the line, debunking the old myth that callers ring off if there is no muzac to reassure them.
Firstdirect, the online/telephonic banking service, now plays birdsong rather than muzac while customers are kept on hold – an improvement that is welcomed by many – though not apparently all – customers. We should reassure Firstdirect and the Skipton BS that they are doing the right thing, and persuade other banks and building societies to offer the same option of silence or of birdsong.
Sam Smiths, the independent Yorkshire-based brewer, has banned the use of mobiles, iPods and similar devices in all its 200 plus pubs. Its policy has long been to avoid music of any sort in its pubs. If people wish to use their devices for any purpose, they must now go outside, just like smokers. ‘The brewery’s policy is that our pubs are for social person to person conversation’, says Humphrey Smith, a descendant of the original founder Sam Smith. All Sam Smith pubs are highly traditional, with often splendid Victorian interiors lovingly preserved or restored.
By treating noise-mongers in the same way as smokers, Sam Smiths is proving itself a pioneer in regard to the physical and psychological health of both its staff and and its customers. Other chains should follow suit! While based in Yorkshire, Sam Smiths has pubs throughout the land from Edinburgh to Kent, with 20 in London.
Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on performance by giving people verbal insight problems that tap creativity. They found that background music ‘significantly impaired’ people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity. In contrast, no effect was discovered for usual background library noise.
For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower), and asked to find a single associated word (e.g. “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (sundress, sundial and sunflower). The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics and music with already known lyrics.
Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University reported: ‘We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.’ Researchers suggest this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.
The third experiment – exposure to music with familiar lyrics – impaired creativity regardless of whether the music also induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or even whether participants normally studied with music being played. But there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between background quiet and usual library noises. Researchers say this is because library noise is a ‘steady state’ environment which is not as disruptive.
‘To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem solving.’
This wholly independent survey – most such surveys are not – confirms earlier research from Swansea University and contradicts familiar arguments in favour of piped music.