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 Its chief conclusions were that current government policies and targets on noise are inadequate and out of date and that new targets need to be set.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.
- Earlier this year, infuriated Starbucks employees took to Reddit to rage about how they had to listen to the same songs from the Broadway hit musical Hamilton endlessly repeated at work. One employee, Emily, wrote that if she heard a Hamilton song one more time, ‘I’m getting a ladder and ripping out all of our speakers from the ceiling.’ Pipedown has long argued that the people who suffer most from piped music in shops, restaurants, cafés etc are those who work there, and that such people’s rights are being trampled on. (See the case of Douglas Perry at the Hull Post office among others). Starbucks has yet to respond meaningfully to this outburst from their long-suffering employees but the writer Adam Johnson compared the piped music to the acoustic torture inflicted on prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.
Recently several members – those, with acute hearing problems such as tinnitus and dystonia but who are not actually deaf – have announced that they are willing to confront shops, restaurants, banks and other places that fail to provide for their condition. (The Equality Act of 2010 ‘requires service providers to make a reasonable adjustment for disabled people to make sure that they are not places at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people. This may include such actions are accommodating requests for communications to be conducted in a particular format.’ See the post for 28 October 2018). As most places are probably unaware of the Equality Act, initial reactions may be bafflement, even disbelief. However, pointing out the Act’s implications could quickly lead places to reconsider their piped music policies. They are very unlikely to want to risk breaking the law. Pipedown can produce a new card along these lines for members’ benefit, if enough members want one.
Quiet Scotland (Pipedown Scotland) now has an on-line forum or chat site where members can exchange views, ask questions, share news or just chat. To access the forum, go to the main website (www.quietscotland.org.uk), then click on the “Forum” link at the top of the page. NB The forum will be visible in Google, and anybody – not just Quiet Scotland members – will be able to read its contents. So don’t post anything that might be considered sensitive or confidential. To post to the forum you will need to register. This is a simple one-off process. Just click the “Register” link in the black menu bar near the top of the page.
Quiet Scotland has tried to keep the whole thing as simple as possible. If you get stuck, look at the Help pages (from the green link near the top-right corner). If you can’t register or log in, email email@example.com. If Quiet Scotland’s forum proves a success, Pipedown UK may start its own forum.
Tesco in Marlborough has introduced a Quiet Hour’ every Wednesday from 2-3pm. Nicola Barker, a customer who finds noise physically painful, protested and Matt Jones, the branch manager, listened to her protests and decided to act. ‘We wanted to help our customers and make shopping easier for them,’ he said. Not only piped music but tannoy announcements and bright lights are muted during this weekly hour of peace. Since introducing the Quiet Hour, staff in Marlborough have noticed ‘many more customers benefitting from the less intense experience.’ There is as yet no plan by Tesco to expand Quiet Hours nationally, however. There should be so we need to keep writing to Tesco’s CEO Dave Lewis firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile the Co-op has been running similar ‘autism awareness hours’ at some of their branches across the country and will be ‘running more going forward.’ Email Steve Murrells the CEO to encourage him with these awareness hours at email@example.com
A person unable to walk is clearly and visibly disabled. Someone who is blind is equally clearly disabled. But people afflicted by whole range of invisible disabilities – from tinnitus to GAD (general anxiety disorder), from misophonia and dystonia to autism, from presbycusis to hyperacusis to ME – often do not appear disabled. Yet in important ways they are. For such people piped music is no mere irritant but a crippling torment. This applies also to those with general hearing problems (one in six of the population, according to Action on Hearing Loss). All these people in effect suffer from an Invisible Disability. And almost nothing is being done for them. Recent moves to provide the odd Quiet Hour by ASDA and Morrisons are still little more than tokenism. Many organisations, from banks to hospitals to restaurants, are arguably breaking existing law.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, the Equality Act of 2010 “requires service providers to make a reasonable adjustment for disabled people to make sure that they are not places at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people. This may include such actions are accommodating requests for communications to be conducted in a particular format. A failure by a service provider to make reasonable adjustment for a disabled person could amount to direct disability discrimination under the Act. (My italics.) What is ‘reasonable’ will vary from one situation to another because of factors such as the practicality of making the adjustment, the cost of the adjustment and the resources available to different providers.”
As the cost of adjusting – i.e. turning off – piped music is almost nil, and it is very easy, there seems no valid reason why all organisations should not be expected to turn off their piped music when requested to do so. Those who fail to do so are guilty of discrimination.
The DWP adds: “If a person feels they have been discriminated against, the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) provides free bespoke advice and in depth support to individuals with discrimination concerns.” The EASS can be contacted: firstname.lastname@example.org or Freephone 0808 800 0082 or FREEPOST EASS HELPLINE FPN 6521
The DWP concludes: “The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has a monitoring and enforcement role in relation to the Equality Act 2010. It has a power to enforce a breach of any of the Act’s provisions, including the disability discrimination provisions, and to challenge organisations where required.”
Any individuals who fall into one of the ‘invisibly disabled’ categories ought to challenge places with piped music, utilising this and other information. Do tell Pipedown of your experiences – setbacks as well as victories – so that we can collate information and approach the Department of Health and the Noise Team at DEFRA with our findings.
(Many thanks to Anne Brown who winkled out this information and suggested the phrase.)