"For poetry makes nothing happen" – Auden (poem In memory of WB Yeats)
... rushing and feeling stressed I dashed into the bank to attend to some difficulties with my account. I waited impatiently in the long queue noting the background music; Celine Dion singing My heart will go on. As well as Celine, there was a television loudly advertising products available in the local area. As I waited I started to feel my heart beat faster. I could not get away from these loud sounds. I felt hot and agitated. I tried to focus on the singing but the advertisements intruded. I focussed on the advertisements but Celine’s voice was going up and up and up. I was forced to listen to both sources. When I was eventually waved over to the teller the noise of the music and the ads meant I could not hear what the woman behind the counter was saying. "The TV and music are on at the same time," I mimed "I actually can’t hear you." So she raised her voice a little while adding in some miming gestures of her own. "Doesn’t it annoy you?" I mouthed at her. "Oh I can’t hear it in here," she mimed back.
This story from recent experience contributes to my uncertainty as to the purposes of music in some workplaces and places where people congregate to undertake business in day to day life. I propose that because music, and music listening in particular, is increasingly promoted as being a useful and inherently good human activity there is increasingly no place where its uses in public spaces can be considered unhelpful, distressing or problematic. That is, music is unthinkingly constructed as adding value to or improving human service and human experience. Increasingly the goodness of music, that is beliefs about its inherent value in shaping good or compliant social behaviour, such as remaining in a line while waiting, make it impossible to experience considerate use of music in social, or especially commercial, environments. This further limits the thoughtful development of the ongoing use of music in areas such as education and therapy while at the same, I would argue, therapists and educators are increasingly required to make arguments for music’s easily accessible goodness in order to ensure the continuation of their work and service.
Even Ruud has commented that:
...in creating the science of music therapy, along with the profession of the music therapist, the question of the general role and value of music in everyday life seemed to be somewhat left out of focus. The concept of music as therapy won much scientific credibility but lost its historically important role as a field of knowledge seeking to utilise music as an important source of information about how to live and relate to the world. (Ruud, 1997, p. 87)
I feel close to experiences of music that create opportunities for change with clients or patients when we work together in music therapy. I have frequently experienced the creative therapeutic opportunities afforded by my presence and live music created by me or between myself and the patient to change individual moments as well as contribute to overall development of clients capacities.
I would suggest that music has become so embedded in the background so that increasingly considerations around difficulties with its presence while multifaceted and complicated are silenced. The use of music as a background to film, its ubiquitous presence in all types of communal contexts that involve consumer behaviour, and the use of background music as a device or mechanism to maintain social order is a hidden phenomenon in discourses about music’s social value, necessity and effects. Instead, increasingly it seems to have to accompany us while we do other things.
On reflection, in my own day to day activities the only places in years I have been where music is not playing in the background is at the airport, my university office, and in the foyer before concerts. The current sociology and psychology of music has not engaged with these uses of music – music is foregrounded in these discourses as if it is still much what it ever was, guided by individual consumer choice and experiential preference and primarily thought of as something you either perform or consciously, wilfully choose to listen to.
The ways in which research findings about music listening undertaken with a defined number of participants are reported as indicating music is helpful to everyone has led to extremes of use. The fit between what researchers are trying to learn about human experience and music in listening studies and the application of music in commercial contexts, often based loosely on long arm use of research findings requires further investigation.
For example, in a report from the print media in the UK it was claimed:
A visit to the bank will not necessarily be a happier experience in the future for HSBC customers, but it will certainly be a less-muted affair after the company disclosed yesterday that it plans to play music to them while they stand in the queue waiting to be served.
The bank representative commenting on the scheme stated
Our staff in the branches where we have trialled the service say it creates an upbeat atmosphere, and when customers are talking to them about private matters, it creates background noise so they can’t be overheard.
(Nugent & Hoyle, 2005)
Quite literally the claim is that music is put to good use as background noise to minimise overhearing of foreground noise. In this case, the benefits of the goodness of music (in relation to relaxation or increasing patience of people queuing or on hold on the telephone) are superseded by the benefits of the noisiness of music.
Other reports suggest a basic grasp of the use of Google scholar such as the report with the headline "Music training good for heart":
...research has shown that music can cut stress, improve athletic performance, improve movement in neurologically impaired patients, and even boost milk production in cattle. (BBC News, 2005)
A few years ago at a conference in Bergen, Even Ruud entertained us in his keynote speech with a story of how the night before he had gone down to the bar at the hotel for a quiet drink. A man came in to play the piano; clearly the evening’s entertainment had arrived. Even’s expression in telling the story suggested that the playing was not particularly enjoyable and later he told me that he thought the man was a hotel patron using the piano to practice. Although Even was the only patron at the bar, he took his beer up to his room. The next night the piano player appeared again and began his exertions at the keyboard. The manager was called over by an older couple because although the piano music had commenced, the background recorded pan pipe music was still playing. They reported to the manager that they liked neither the background music nor the piano music however the piano prevailed and the background music was eventually turned off. (story used with permission)
This way of treating music; firstly that it cannot be turned off once it is playing in public places, and secondly that two competing sources a la Charles Ives can be encountered in receiving musical experiences in everyday social contexts, is part of my own experience of how music’s role has changed – melded into background experience. It reminds me of a time when I was watching a BBC historical documentary on the rise of minimalism in musical composition where the documentary makers showed an in-studio performance of the piece In C by Terry Riley. Having studied this work as an undergraduate music student I was interested to see what I remembered about the piece. As the performance commenced I listened to the motifs and noted what the various players were doing. Then the camera shot pulled back to reveal a commentator who walked in front of the ensemble. While the musicians continued to play in the background a dialogue was spoken to camera about the importance of the piece and the way it launched the minimalist movement in music. I found myself shouting at the television "just let us listen!"
While it could easily be argued these isolated experiences of music listening are discrete incidents and might not reference a complete picture of contemporary and future uses of music, I suggest there is some evidence to support the idea that music is increasingly becoming a pervasive background surround to everyday life; used to block out other stimuli, and beyond our control to turn off or change the volume. It goes unnoticed that the radio in the background is not tuned in or that more than one sound source is playing at the one time. This is most noticeable in one of the large department stores near where I live which zones sections of the makeup and perfume counters. Standing in some sections you can hear two different music sources playing loudly.
Increasingly I note that my profession and the closely related profession of music education get caught into a way of justifying ourselves – whether our salaries, our roles, our contact with patients – in ways that that essentialises or even instrumentalises music as something which is necessary because it has good effects.
I hope that music therapists can think about music differently. I will finish with a quote I like from Bruno Nettl -
Ethnomusicologists have come to conclude that music does something to a person, something not done by anything else in nature or culture. They do not consider music to have a single main function among the various aspects of culture, and among the various cultures of the world, except for simply being music; but the peoples of the world all feel that they cannot live without it. Of the many domains of culture, music would perhaps seem to be one of the least necessary; yet we know of no culture that does not have it (p. 131).
 At one of the campus cafés I asked for the music to be turned down and the staff member was delighted because (as she said of her boss) "he won’t turn it down for me but if I say a customer wants it to be turned down he will always do it."
 Though I did comment on this at a shop near the university where I work and the young person at the cashier’s desk said "tell me about i"’ and then explained that the way the radio was installed in the shop meant it could neither be tuned in nor turned off.
BBC News (Sept. 28, 2005). Music training "good for heart": Learning a musical instrument could be good for the heart, a study suggests. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4289482.stm
Nugent, Helen & Hoyle, Ben (June 10, 2005). Money, money, money. A bank that makes its customers listen. The Times. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/money/consumer_affairs/article531908.ece
Nettl, B. (2005). An ethnomusicological perspective. International Journal of Music Education, 23, 131-133.
Ruud, E. (1997). Music and the quality of life. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 6, 86-97.
Edwards, Jane (2008). "Do You Want Muzak With That?" The Ubiquitous Presence of Background Music in Everyday Life. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=coledwards110208