2 December 2019

Is Christmas music bad for our mental health?

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, certainly thinks so. A year ago she produced research showing that relentlessly festive tunes can be mentally draining. 
"People working in the shops at Christmas have to [tune out] Christmas music, because if they don't, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else. You're simply spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you're hearing.”
At the time the research was widely reported in the media.  But has anything happened 12 months on which makes life for shop staff and customers any less mentally draining?

It certainly hasn’t in M&S. Back in June 2016 M&S told us they were turning off their background music for the first time in 10 years, so that their customers could shop in peace. At the time they said, "We’re focused on putting the customer at the heart of everything we do, this decision is the result of extensive research and feedback from our customers and colleagues." Not for long. By the end of November 2016 the music was back. Anyone complaining was told that M&S had done more research showing that their customers didn’t want music at any other time of the year, but they did want it at Christmas. They took out a 4-week licence in order to play it. This was repeated in 2017 and 2018. 

However, in 2019 M&S started playing their 'Christmas' music on 28 October. According to their Twitter account, this was as a result of even more research which showed that M&S customers didn’t want background music during the year but they did want Christmas music earlier and earlier, which is why they had decided to play it in October. What is going to happen in 2020? Will M&S say they have done yet more research and that their customers are now saying that they want the Christmas music to start in August? If you go into M&S, ask the staff if they are enjoying the Christmas music. Some will like it but more often than not they will tell you that they are either able to ‘switch off’ so that they don’t have to listen to it, or that they hate it.

However, there are hopeful signs elsewhere. The York Gin Shop seems more enlightened. They have banned cheesy Christmas songs for the sake of staff morale. The owner of the shop says that “having to endure such music for hours each day would ruin Christmas for shop-floor employees…[and] the move would be welcomed by shoppers tired of the constant festive playlist pumped through the speaker systems of many high street shops from mid-November”

And the most recent glimmer of hope comes from Tesco in Scotland. Yes, they are playing Christmas music but they are also recognising that many of their customers have sensory problems and would appreciate quieter times when there is no background music. They have decided to offer two mornings when the music will be switched off for three hours at a time - Wednesday 4th December 9am-12pm, and Wednesday 11th December 9am-12pm. The staff will get a break from incessant Christmas tunes and everyone can shop in peace. 

For the sake of our mental health let's hope other stores will follow suit by Christmas 2020...

11 November 2019

Music at Tutankhamun exhibition 'inclined me to violence'

Brian Appleyard, arts critic in the Sunday Times on London's new Tutankhamun exhibition:

"In fact, it was a West End musical. Yes, this show has music.And yes, it is dreadful. Think of the stuff they play in spas while giving you a massage. It is intended to be relaxing, but its meandering, unresolved tinkling tenses every muscle in your body. It inclined me to violence and certainly shredded my capacity for contemplation."

3 November 2019

Hearing damage from loud music

There is a well-known expression, “What you don’t know, can’t hurt you”. True of some situations, perhaps, but certainly not true when it comes to hearing damage from loud music.

Hearing damage caused by exposure to loud music

There have been many well-documented cases of singers and instrumentalists revealing the damage that a lifetime of performing in a band has done to their hearing. One famous example is Pete Townshend of the Who. “I have terrible hearing trouble. I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf”.  Eric Clapton, Chris Martin, Ozzie Osbourne and Barbra Streisand have also blamed exposure to music on their current hearing problems.

Many people will say that individuals like Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton have spent their lives immersed in loud music. “It’s not going to affect me. I only go to the occasional gig”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are many, less well-documented, cases of people suffering permanent hearing loss or tinnitus after just a handful of very loud concerts or exposure to loud music at something as innocuous as a gym class.  Nathaniel Ernest struggled to sleep after getting tinnitus from a gig when he was 18 and Christine Reiners blames her hearing problems on blaring music at her exercise class.

Legal position

It is not easy to sue a concert provider for your permanent hearing damage. You know that the symptoms occurred immediately after their concert but it is your word against, usually, a very powerful organisation. And, as we've already mentioned,  it’s not just concerts that can affect you. Background music in restaurants, bars, gyms and even shops can reach dangerously high levels. There is an ongoing law case - Victoria Secrets v Erik Maran  where Erik Maran is claiming that a loud blast from a speaker at a fashion show in Victoria Secrets led to his hearing loss and tinnitus. 

Organisations have a duty to protect their own staff from dangerously loud music. Once the decibel level hits 85 dB for more than 15 minutes, they are obliged to issue their staff with hearing protection under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005  However, they have no legal obligation whatsoever to warn the audience at concerts (often pre-teens and teenagers), where the decibel level is often in excess of 110 dB, or customers in restaurants, bars, shops and gyms, that the volume of the music can cause permanent damage to their hearing.

How can we make people aware of the dangers?

There is no way that Quiet Scotland wants to see a nanny state imposed. However, we do feel that everyone, not just concert-goers, should be warned of the dangers of loud music. Many people have no idea that just a few evenings of loud music could result in permanent hearing problems. The BBC often hands out hearing protection when it is playing music in excess of 85 dB at its events. Why doesn’t every event organiser do this? Or even the owners of very loud bars and restaurants?

It isn’t just music events, shops, bars, gyms and restaurants that present a danger to our hearing. Hugh Grant recently complained that his experience of watching ‘The Joker’ in his local Vue cinema was “unendurable” because of the noise volume. This resulted in an enormous response on social media, mostly supporting Hugh. However, Eddie Harrison, the Scottish film critic, disagreed. The majority of people, he said, want to be “blown out of their seats” by the “blistering noise”.

Do they? And, even if they do, have they any idea of the damage this can cause to their hearing?

It is heartening to see that the National Centre for Environmental Health in America have issued a new educational comic book, “How Loud is Too Loud?” which is available online. Hopefully, the next generation will have the facts at their fingertips and be able to educate those who are currently putting our hearing at risk. 

As they will be only too well aware, “What you don’t know, CAN hurt you”

1 November 2019

Unwanted sound effects

Walking quietly around a gallery or historical location, enjoying looking at the exhibits and reading about them, your ears are suddenly assaulted by music or loud booming voices. Someone has pressed the button for audio, and not only do they hear it, so do you and everyone else in the room, for as long as it goes on and often into the next room and beyond. Finally it fades. Then someone presses it again, and all hope fades of being able to concentrate.

A number of museums and places of interest provide personal audio devices to take around with you, but many do not. Instead, there are buttons to press (a magnet for children, usually repeatedly) or a constant background of sound effects 'appropriate' to the exhibition in question. What does this add? We know what a storm sounds like, or gunshots, or a marketplace. We don't need to hear a letter read out, we can read it ourselves.

Please, no more.

15 October 2019

BBC tests technology to remove unwanted noise from TV dramas

The BBC is testing a system that will allow viewers to remove background music and other distracting noise from TV dramas, thus making it easier to hear spoken dialogue. The move follows a deluge of complaints about inaudible actors in dramas such as War and Peace and Jamaica Inn.

In July, the corporation tested the technology with an episode of Casualty that was streamed on its website. The relevant web page included a slider alongside the standard volume control. Keeping the slider on the right-hand side retained the full audio. Moving it to the left reduced background noise, including music, making it easier to understand the spoken word.

The BBC said that the response from viewers was "overwhelmingly positive". Of the 3,300 people who viewed the on-line episode, 80 percent described it as an improvement.

The technology is targeted at the 11 million people in the UK who suffer from some form of hearing loss as well as many others who say that unnecessary background music spoils their enjoyment.

But before you start hunting for that slider, be aware that the system is still very much under development. And even when it becomes available (and no date as been announced for that), it won't necessarily work on existing TV sets that receive programmes over the air. To use the technology, you will have to watch TV on a computer or an TV that can stream from the internet.

So far, the focus has been on removing background noise from dramas. It is not clear whether the BBC will also apply the technology to documentaries, which are also the target of viewers' complaints. Still, it is very much a step in the right direction, and one that we at Quiet Scotland are likely to fully support.

14 October 2019

Quiet Scotland Blog Launched

Quiet Scotland has now launched a blog to complement our existing website, forum and social media.

Quiet Scotland campaigns for freedom from unwanted background music in cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, GP surgeries, hospital waiting rooms and other public places. The aim of the blog is to make it easier for us to publish up-to-date news and information about these campaigns as well as on other topics likely to be of interest to our members.

We welcome your feedback on any of the matters raised in the blog. Every post has a comment feature which you may use to let us know your opinions and to share your experiences. But note that comments containing offensive language or personal attacks will not be allowed, nor will any attempts to spam the blog.

If you would like to become a member of Quiet Scotland, please get in touch. We have a very informal membership structure. There is no charge or obligation of any kind, and you may be as active or as inactive as you wish.

You will find a lot more information about us on our main website, which also contains extensive listings of music-free shops, restaurants and bars in Scotland. We are always adding new venues to these lists, so please get in touch if you know of any that we might have missed.

We also have a forum where you can take part in more in-depth discussions about our campaigns or other matters that concern us. And we are active on Facebook and Twitter as well. Please visit our Contact page to access these features.