A busy shopping mall on Black Friday
You can almost hear Phil Collins' "Sussudio" playing in the background. Chris O'Meara/AP

This holiday season, groups in Michigan and the UK are asking for fewer jingle bells, more silent nights in public spaces.

It was a bright, frigid morning in Ann Arbor, Michigan, two weeks before the University of Michigan let out for winter break, and the college town’s numerous coffee shops were abuzz with the gentle tapping of keyboards, the whooshing of espresso machines, the occasional chatter—and the tinny strains of 1980s and ’90s pop hits.

It’s that last element of the sonic landscape that drives Gina Choe and Libby Hunter crazy. Standing just inside a cavernous cafe where The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” competed with a sizzling griddle, jostling coffee cups, and echoing voices, Choe said, “I came in here once, and [the music] was everywhere around me. Everyone was talking more loudly—I couldn’t even hear my friend.”

As Choe checked a decibel meter on her phone (“65, the level of loud conversation”), Hunter mentioned that the last time she was here, she had asked a counter worker if the music could be turned off. “The manager came over to my table, and she was really nice, but she said no, because of the ‘atmosphere.’ It’s amazing how afraid they are to not have music.”

Gina Choe checking the decibel level outside a restaurant (Amy Crawford)

Hunter, a retired middle-school music teacher, and Choe, a 2017 Michigan graduate who is working in a research lab while she prepares to apply to medical school, do not travel in the same circles, and might never have met at all had they not come together over a mutual love of quiet spaces—and a loathing for piped-in background music.

Last summer, Choe posted on the neighborhood-based social network Nextdoor, soliciting suggestions for quiet places to work (“Most people recommended libraries, and that wasn’t what I was looking for,” she clarified). Hunter responded in sympathy, noting that she had long wanted to form a local chapter of the British group Pipedown, which has organized successful letter-writing campaigns against piped music in department stores and pubs. Choe said she could build a website, and not long after, Quiet Ann Arbor, the first U.S. chapter of Pipedown, was born. The still-new group plans to assemble a database of quiet places in town and mount letter-writing campaigns along the lines of Pipedown’s in the U.K.

“My goal is no music in public places, unless it’s live music,” Hunter said. “Let’s keep music special. Music is not special when it’s part of the wallpaper.”

A speaker mounted outside a cafe in Ann Arbor, playing music loud enough to be heard across the street. (Amy Crawford)

Choe and Hunter’s intolerance for piped music might seem extreme. (Full disclosure: I am writing this in a cafe where I find the R&B soundtrack to be a fairly innocuous accompaniment to a double cappuccino). But it’s safe to say that most of us have been annoyed, at one time or another, by piped music—especially during the holidays, when bad covers of Christmas standards are suddenly everywhere. Although for some people, music is part of the appeal of a coffee shop or bar, they might feel differently when others’ musical tastes are imposed upon them at the airport or the grocery store, in hospital corridors or doctors’ waiting rooms, or even—thanks to the outdoor speakers some shops position above their doorframes—in the street itself.

“Most of us really like music. We just want it to be freely chosen,” said Nigel Rodgers, an English writer who founded Pipedown in 1992, and compares piped music to second-hand cigarette smoke.

Pipedown now boasts some 2,000 members across the U.K., including Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, who supplied a blurb for the group’s website (“I have left shops, unable to purchase the object of my desire, because of hellish piped music”). It has also won a number of victories. In 1994, Gatwick Airport, Britain’s second busiest, agreed to turn off piped music in its terminals after Pipedown persuaded management to survey travelers. According to the group, of the more than 68,000 people who responded to the survey, 43 percent said they disliked the piped music, while only 34 percent said they liked it (the rest didn’t care either way).

More recently, Pipedown’s letter-writing campaigns have persuaded stores to turn off or limit music. Last year, the department-store chain Marks and Spencer stopped playing it, and this past spring, the grocer Asda said it would experiment with “quiet hours.” And an Australian broadcaster has announced plans to launch a Pipedown chapter Down Under.

Gatwick Airport in the UK agreed to turn off piped music after a survey showed that more travelers disliked than liked it. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

While many of Pipedown’s members simply dislike piped music, Rodgers noted that it can be more than an irritant. “Music you don’t want to listen to simply becomes noise, and all noise has certain effects on people,” he said, pointing to studies that show noise raises blood pressure and exacerbates depression and anxiety, especially in people who have to hear it for extended periods (perhaps because they work in a shop where “All I Want for Christmas Is You” plays on an endless loop). For those with autism and other sensory-processing issues, or with hearing disorders like tinnitus and hyperacusis, it can aggravate symptoms, impede their ability to hear conversation, and even interfere with how they get around.

“It gets confusing when the music is too loud,” said Ann Arbor resident Morry Nathan, in a downtown bookstore where soft classical guitar played over a small speaker. (“This is not too bad,” said Choe, looking at her decibel meter.) Nathan, who is both blind and hard of hearing, hadn’t heard about Quiet Ann Arbor, but he said he supported their goal. “It’s hard to keep up a conversation, and when the acoustics of the room are also bad—lots of hard surfaces—it can be jarring,” he said. “I have walked out of restaurants because of it.”

Of course, stores, restaurants, cafes, and shopping malls are not trying to torment their customers; they are trying to make money. A body of research suggests that people spend more in a store where slow music is playing and move more quickly when music is loud; that classical music may induce customers to spend more money on luxury goods; and that impulse buyers tend to spend more at the mall when music is playing. As brick-and-mortar stores face the threat of online retail, some are even turning to music for salvation. Target, which long resisted playing music on the grounds that it distracts people from shopping, has been testing it at some locations, and announced this year that it would roll out an “upbeat, positive” soundtrack with “a playful personality” in several dozen new and remodeled stores.

Whether or not the psychological manipulation works, people who hate piped music bristle at the intent. “When I started Pipedown, I thought piped music did work,” Rodgers said. (He has since become skeptical.) “And I objected on the grounds of liberty. We shouldn’t have to have this mind control.”

Simply by its existence, piped music does shape our experience of public life. Sure, private businesses may do what they like, whether that’s playing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” 300 times in December or bowing to the pressure of polite British (or Midwestern) letter-writers. But by imposing a mood, whether festive or frenetic, they risk interfering with phenomena like conversation and people-watching that motivate people to spend time among their fellow humans. Background music is a buffer that can numb us to one another.

“We’re so cyber-spatially-oriented now,” said Hunter, after she and Choe had finally found a coffee shop quiet enough to conduct our interview. “And I almost think I have no bandwidth left. This is a time in our history when people need to be communicating with each other. Real, live talking is more important than ever.”

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