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  • Writer's pictureLiza Mulholland

This musician longs for quiet!

Is it possible for a musician to become allergic to music? Before you think I’ve lost the plot, let me clarify that I mean the ‘background’ variety, the stuff that is omnipresent, noisy and, as I am increasingly feeling, an invasive irritant. Maybe I’m just growing cranky with passing years, but I find myself getting ever-more impatient with how we’re all supposed to be accepting of it. Who is with me on this?

Music, or muzak, it seems is everywhere and I would suggest it has the effect of raising stress levels, as opposed to relaxing us or enhancing our mood, which I believe is the expressed purpose of it in shops, restaurants and other public spaces. I will immediately leave a shop with blaring decibels, and while most of us out for dinner probably prefer our conversations not to be heard by other diners - rendering some light ambient music necessary - must it be so loud!

Out for a big family meal recently, I could barely hear what my nephew across the table was saying. The clatter of plates, clink of glasses, and the chatter of cheery waiters all add to a lively eating-out atmosphere that I love, but when loud music, that no-one is actually listening to, is played over an already fulsome sonic tapestry, it can become almost unbearable.

I accept that because I do music for a living, I’ve undoubtably become hyper-sensitive to what I hear around me, just as, say, a painter would be acutely aware of colour schemes, nature’s inspiring palette or the aesthetics of wall-art. And it’s not just volume. Choice of music also seems to me painfully random, as if no thought at all has gone into the matter.

Why for instance does the café of an arts centre, on an island renowned for its beautiful Gaelic singers and incredible musicians, play loud American pop? Lady Gaga, after all, does not need a leg up, but sensitively sharing local music with visitors might enhance the sense of place and unique culture; maybe even help sell some of those musicians’ cds in their gift shop.

The café staff – and I can only guess that the music was someone’s personal Spotify playlist or some such - demonstrated a lack of joined-up thinking, the like of which detracts from wider positive progress in our tourism industry. I pondered despondently what on earth my fellow-customers from abroad made of it.

I confess I’ve long struggled with background music, having always found it hinders my concentration in studying, writing, reading or anything else involving focus. When my son was working for his Higher exams last summer, I had several slightly exasperated conversations with him where I suggested he might concentrate better without his music playing. He insisted it helped him study and wasn’t up for experimenting with silence, so I eventually gave up. When his results came through and were good, I concluded maybe we’re simply all different and it worked for him after all. However, some Cognitive Psychology research just published has got me contemplating this all over again!

Emma Threadgold’s study, for the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Psychology, opens: ‘Background music has been claimed to enhance people’s creativity. In three experiments we investigated the impact of background music on performance of Compound Remote Associate Tasks, which are widely thought to tap creativity.’

Experimenting with 1) music with foreign or unfamiliar lyrics, 2) instrumental music, 3) music with familiar lyrics, she and colleagues found that in all cases the ability of volunteers to problem-solve, complete puzzles and think creatively was impaired. Threadgold concludes, ‘The findings challenge the view that background music enhances creativity’.

If cognitive processes are so impaired, might we all have a little more headspace if we eased up on the muzak? We might even find it increases our appreciation of music! Next time you’re eating out in Inverness and you see a grumpy-looking woman asking staff to please turn the music down a little, it will probably be me!

(First published by Highlands News & Media 22nd March 2019)

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