Miércoles 12 de Abril de 2006, Ip nº 148

Lift music is not elevating
Por Philippa Ibbotson

One might be forgiven for thinking that there is much to detest in contemporary Britain - violent crime, burgeoning volumes of traffic and pollution, poor public transport, fast-food chains. Yet in a recent Mori poll, 17% of people surveyed said that "the thing they most detest about daily modern life" is the use of muzak. Indeed, it seems to be everywhere - dull, cosseting aural slush filling every available space and, unavoidably, those interminable waits on the phone.

Perhaps the use of muzak is in part a reflection of our preoccupation with gloss and spin - buff up the surface, attend to every external area of presentation and, with luck, anything goes underneath. But more than this, the use of muzak is pernicious because it is manipulative. Its effects, like those of the constant bombardment of sexual imagery, are insidious. We should be under no illusions: the power of music to manipulate our emotions is well known and widely exploited. And formulaic muzak stimulates only the very shallowest of our emotions, arousing or lulling our surface senses to order.
Most commercial films nowadays use prescriptive harmonies - textures, rhythms and instrumentation that will extract the required emotional responses from the audience. Phone companies invade our most personal aural space with unwanted noise, attempting to allay entirely accurate suspicions that in their neglect they do not care about us. Supermarkets play the same bland and inanely cheerful chord progressions, wafting softly over the frozen vegetables like an aural narcotic. Familiarity breeds Pavlov's dogs for customers who associate the same innocuous harmonies with the need to buy food. Young people's clothing stores deliberately play adrenalised, beat-driven music to increase arousal levels, and so the urge to take money-spending risks.

But while it is instantly accessible and easily digestible, muzak, like junk food, can leave us feeling heavy and unsatisfied. We crave more. Not, as we are led to believe, because another dose of salt, sugar and mulched-up pigs' trotters smothered in cheese will satisfy us, but because our deeper needs, essential for wellbeing, remain unfed. A musical diet to which only our most simplistic and superficial selves can respond will nurture only those parts of us. And all too easily we then identify with things that feel unchallenging and comfortable.

Just as a diet rich in salt and sugar numbs our palate, so too does this narrow yet ubiquitous musical diet shrink our emotional spectrum. No complex, uncomfortable emotions in this world of flaccid, predictable harmonies and instant gratification - no anguish or pain that is not immediately remediable. What is extraordinary in all this is that music, so commonly used now for gain and manipulation, can be so staggeringly ignored and underexploited in its capacity for good.

Where is the publicity given to the inestimable therapeutic value of music and the arts in general, to the huge strides and discoveries made in these areas recently? Where is the widespread funding and support for research into the effects of music on the brain, and for its use, both in healing and development, in schools and institutions? Art forms that familiarise us with difficult feelings not only enable us better to deal with them ourselves, but also to identify with them in others.

Music has infinite powers to enhance life and enlighten our senses. Contemporary Britain could be improved by its intelligent, sensitive use. It is high time we were enlightened.


  28/03/2006. The Guardian.