Quiet Hours at Tesco and M&S: tokenism or signs of real concern?

Thanks to the energy and tenacity of Hilary Browne, who would not be fobbed off by meaningless replies to her emails, both Tesco and M&S have agreed to have Quiet Hours – both have recently reinstalled piped music. For Tesco at present these moments of tranquil sanity are 9-10am on Wednesday and Saturday. Hilary has also managed, after much persuasion, to get the music turned off at her local branch in Middlesborough whenever she shops there. For Marks and Spencer the planned quiet hours are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8-9 am and between 7-8pm. Marks and Spencer also promised to consider going completely muzak-free in the New Year. Hilary has pointed out that one hour is not enough for a a decent shop and these are all awkward times for most potential customers – early morning hours require driving through rush hour traffic, for example. She is continuing her battle undaunted. Her success shows what can be done by battling on, repeating again and again how piped music especially harms those with hearing disabilities and pleases far fewer people than it annoys. Her message is: don’t be put off by the first lot of replies.

ASDA is also introducing quiet hours and at more convenient times – 2pm-3pm – three days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It admits that 80% of the estimated 14 million disabled people in the UK are not visibly disabled. This applies of course to everyone with a hearing problem (16% of the population) and also those with chronic problems such as Aspergers, dishphonia or autism. Such small concessions should encourage us to press for more sweeping proposals, if not this year, certainly next year!

Add your voice to Hilary’s by writing to the relevant CEOs concerned:

for Tesco this is ken.murphy@uk.tesco.com

for M&S this is steve.rowe@marks-and-spencer.com


Recent research shows that listening to loud music in cars, especially those with loud sing-along lyrics, can cause some motorists to become ‘mentally overloaded’, increasing the risk of them driving dangerously. This is particularly true in towns, where concentration is even more essential to avoid endangering cyclists or pedestrians. Researchers said drivers should be ‘wary of using loud, lyrical music in urban environments’ because it could ‘elevate levels of activation and even aggression’, particularly in the young. Instead they recommend listening to softer instrumental music, preferably classical. So ‘boom boys’ blasting their way through streets are not only a nuisance but a danger. This may not surprise many but it is good to have it confirmed. The recent study, carried out by academics from universities of Brunel, Coventry, Surrey and King’s College London, found that about 90 per cent of motorists listened to music while driving, with loud music being particularly popular with younger men.

Direct action? Rupert Fawdry’s story

Direct action can be tempting but it can have its perils, as Rupert Fawdry’s story reveals.

‘Two policemen recently arrived at my home on a  Saturday afternoon, when I was out. This seems to be connected  to an incident last July at the Milton Keynes INTU shopping centre.  I am an 80-year-old retired Maternity Care & Gyn NHS Consultant.  I had parked my car for a short time in the open-air, 5th floor rooftop car park. There seemed to be few people around, but the massive noise of muzac was loud enough to keep patrons of hotel opposite awake and even to damage one’s hearing, especially that of elderly people. By chance I had some secateurs in my car  to cut back brambles obstructing footpaths. Rather than ignore this serious danger to health, I reached up and snipped the wiring of the three nearest loudspeakers. A few days later I tried to use the same car park but the barrier would not open for me (thus holding up several cars behind me).  After about half an hour two very fierce security men arrived. They proceeded to accuse me of criminal damage on the unlikely grounds that the unbearable loud reverberating loudspeakers were essential for use in an emergency. They called the police and I then had to wait for about an hour for two policemen to arrive.  I was interviewed in the main Milton Keynes police station. I contacted a local journalist to publicise the incident but for the present she is unable to warn the public as the matter is still sub judice. It now seems probable that my number plate was recognised by Intu when I recently used a free parking space in the open just outside the actual shopping centre, going to a restaurant in the next block, but I am a bit puzzled as to whether this constitutes trespassing on Intu property. 

Chatting later to others about the incident, almost every older person I have spoken to backs my action and wishes they were sufficiently rebellious to have done the same. One commented that if I came up with the possibility of designing a laser device to zap public Muzak loudspeakers they would help provide financial backing.  And if I do get fined they would be happy to contribute to any Crowdsource initiative to pay it off for me. ‘

Update: Rupert Fawdry was finally given a police caution in August 2021, a year after his ‘offence’.

Peace and quiet on the trains!

“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.

Pub-goers don’t want piped music!

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.

Noise helps spread Covid

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’s retrograde decision

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 ken.murphy@uk.tesco.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.

Silent breakfasts help the heart, the head and the waistline.

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.

Zoom meetings?

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 newpipedown@btinternet.com Not all members like the idea of such meetings of course, and a quorum is needed to make it worthwhile.

Sign the petition against muzac in hospitals!

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.