Please Turn Down the Music

Stephen O. Frazier

I have a question for business owners who force loud, and largely unwanted, music on the public: DO YOU WANT TO OFFEND AND CHASE AWAY 10 TO 20 % OF YOUR POTENTIAL ADULT CUSTOMERS? Unless the answer is yes, PLEASE TURN DOWN THE MUSIC! Many people don't like it and don't want it and the rest don't care! Surveys have shown that a disgruntled customer can cause up to eight other customers to quit patronizing a business and a lot of today's "background music" is creating a lot of disgruntled customers. Often they're not coming back and you don't even know it!

This stuff you're playing is not the old innocuous Muzak of years gone by-- the "elevator music" that people joked about. That was soft, instrumental music that was almost subliminal and certainly not offensive to anyone with the exception of a few purists who felt music should not be performed unless someone was actually listening. Nope, Muzak and other forms of "canned" music have changed, and the music now often includes lyrics. Now, in the elevator, in the supermarket, in the mall, in the restaurant parking lot and in Dillard's rest rooms, it is Old Standards time, Rock and Roll or Country Western or maybe Rhythm and Blues time. In reality, it's singalong time because in a noisy and, to many, a most irritating departure from those more sedate days gone by, the music now often includes the lyrics.

Even the Muzak company provides vocal music for retailers and other service businesses, saying they save the instrumental stuff for offices. One might infer from this that the instrumental music is only suitable for places where people have to think. Muzak makes no recommendations as to how loud the vocal music should be played and say they have never studied how music that is too loud affects the ability of people to communicate. That's a problem they and the business places should look into. The information is certainly available and pretty damning of the practice of forcing background music on the public.

Audiologists and engineers in this country and abroad studied the effects that background noise has on the ability to understand the spoken word for both hearing impaired people and those with normal hearing. Unfortunately, the information gathered in these studies does not seem to have found its way to the business world. One recent study showed that background music in public areas is actually either meaningless or a nuisance to the public. At London's Gatwick Airport, a survey showed that the great majority of people were not even aware of the music. This is not at all uncommon if the music is kept at a low level. As for those who were aware of the music at Gatwick, the majority disliked it.

In a German study lasting 40 days and involving 50,000 customers, the presence or absence of music had no effect whatsoever either on how long a customer stayed in a store or how much money that customer spent. A different study in the U.S. found that loud music actually created what the researchers called an “avoidance situation". Another study indicated that inappropriate music actually lowered the bar income for the restaurant and caused an increase in the number of patrons who left while waiting to be seated. Providing this music is not cheap whether it is from the Muzak company or other sources, and one wonders if businesses would make this investment if they were aware of these study results.

I recently had lunch with a friend at a TGI Friday's. We tried to carry on a conversation but we couldn't hear each other over the loud music. The waiter was called over and asked if they could please turn the music down and much to our pleasant surprise the request was granted. Many places just say, "Sorry, can't do that…" At a Lone Star Steak House, when asked for a table away from the speakers because the music was too loud, the response was, "Oh, we have speakers everywhere!" It makes one wonder if part of the purpose of the music is to inhibit conversation so that patrons will either eat and get out, or spend their time drinking rather than visiting with meal companions. Earlier in the day, I left the local Home Base in frustration after being unable to converse with an Associate on the floor due to the loud music playing over the public address system. Home Base's music is really quite special because with their huge stores and the cavernous ceilings, the music echoes throughout the building (it also happens to be dreadful music!) I left. Did they want me to leave? I remembered after I got out that there was something else I needed to buy. Oh well...

I may sound like some cranky old man who hates music but that is most certainly not the case. I spent 15 years in the music business and derive great pleasure from listening to music. The distinction worth noting here is that when I hear music I intend to listen to it. I have a problem with "background music," and I am a part of one of America's largest, least understood, and most neglected minorities. The government estimates that 13 % of the American public has hearing loss sufficient to be described as "handicapping" and I am among them.

I have two separate hearing problems. One is Tinnitus, and the other is hearing loss in the upper register, making it difficult for me to distinguish between the "S" sound and the "F" sound or between the "C" sound and the "G" sound. The Tinnitus is a constant high-pitched ringing sound (like the noise an old black and white TV set used to make when the set was turned on but the sound was turned off.). The American Tinnitus Association claims that more than 36 million Americans suffer from this problem. For some people, William Shatner for example, the Tinnitus is a whooshing sound. Shatner's condition is so bad and so distracting that he actually claims to have considered suicide until he learned to deal with it. Any type of sound caused by Tinnitus will mask other sounds, making it even more difficult to hear and identify consonants, thus making many words unintelligible. The mind may try to make a word out of the sounds it thinks it is hearing but often the word makes no sense in the context of what was being said.

Hearing aids, particularly the newest types, can help overcome these problems to a degree. Some can be tuned to make the consonants a little more distinct by providing more amplification to the pitches that the ear has the most difficulty hearing. Hearing aids often just make sounds louder so that they're heard over the Tinnitus or the hearing loss. Hearing experts point out that the use of hearing aids does not completely correct all hearing loss and, in some cases, can actually cause more difficulty because of “recruitment”. "Recruitment" is an above-normal sensitivity to sounds in a certain range that sometimes occurs in those with impaired hearing. Hearing aids will only increase the problem and can result in actual pain. Also, if there is a lot of background noise (street sounds, machines running, airplanes flying overhead, or that dreaded loud background music) you may not hear what's being said when wearing hearing aids, since those background sounds are also being amplified, still effectively masking what is being said. What often happens with the hearing impaired in this situation is that you just stand there and smile and eventually walk away without making a purchase or without understanding the directions you asked for. Most of the loud noises just listed here are at least somewhat difficult to control. Some cities are trying but not making a lot of progress. One of the noise sources, however, is very easy to control: amplified music. All that is required is that the businesses adjust the volume control on their music systems or just turn the music off.

Newsweek Magazine claims that over 5 million Americans wear hearing aids but that this represents only a small portion of the hearing disabled. The federal government states that 36 million people have difficulty hearing due, in part, to unnecessary "background music". Many of these people do not have hearing aids because health insurance plans and HMO's won't pay for even a portion of the cost. The fact that health care providers and insurance companies are allowed to discriminate against this huge minority of disabled people indicates what little thought is given to the problems of the hearing impaired. Politicians and bureaucrats must be held accountable for the task of regulating them.

Many studies have been done analyzing the effect of background noise on the hearing impaired. The results of those studies have proven that background noise makes it more difficult to understand words directed at you. The Department of Audiology at University Hospital in Linkoping, Sweden found that the sound to noise ratio had to be, on average, 8.7 dB higher for the hard of hearing in order to understand the same number of words in a given string of words. This study used subjects with various degrees of hearing loss and then averaged the results. Other studies indicate the difference could be as much as much as 18 dB. This is somewhat analogous to comparing instrumental music to vocal music. The difference in effect is dramatic.

A layman needs to understand decibels, which are the units used in measuring sound. Normal conversation is in the range of 60 dB. The American Academy of Otolaryngology tells us that "as decibel intensity increases by units of 10, each increase is 10 TIMES the lower figure." Therefore, a person speaking at 65 decibels is speaking much more loudly than the normal 60dB volume of speech. If background music is being played making the ambient noise level 55 dB, you must speak considerably louder to the average hearing impaired person to be understood if vocal music is being used as opposed to instrumental. For a hearing impaired person you must add the 10 dB for the competing voice and the hearing loss and you are at 65 decibels.

On a recent visit to the local Cottonwood mall, they were playing instrumental music. The Mall had just opened and was almost empty. The ambient sound level ranged from 59dB to 69dB-- loud by anyone’s standards! Add to that the 10dB for my hearing impairment struggling against the music and you would have to speak to me at up to 79dB in order for me to understand what you were saying. For comparison, the average alarm clock sounds at 80dB. Music played at this level hardly qualifies as “background” music as it already exceeds the sound level of normal conversation. In one of the department stores within the Mall, the ambient sound averaged in the low 50’s, much more acceptable (although I had to go halfway through the store before I couldn’t hear the Mall’s music).

According to Rutgers University, if the ambient sound level is 60 dB, people with normal hearing can communicate at a distance of 2 meters without raising their voice and understand 95% of the words. The EPA recommends that background noise not exceed 50 dB to allow normal hearing people to understand 100% of the words of a speaker just a few feet away. At the 69 dB level in the Mall, even people with normal hearing would have a problem, let alone the hard of hearing. In this situation hearing aids offer little help as they amplify the music right along with any conversation. Several studies have shown that, under the same conditions, the average hearing impaired person will distinguish 16 % fewer spoken words than a person with normal hearing. That's 4 words out of every 25 or almost 1 out of every 6 that will not be understood. Try carrying on a conversation leaving out every 6th word.

Research indicates that if businesses catering to the public have any concern for the hearing impaired, they would either turn their music off, or at least turn it down and revert to instrumental music. After all, they are making it difficult for a large percentage of customers to use their services. One bright hope in this area is the growing importance of the over-fifty age group to businesses due to the influx of the "baby boom" generation. With rock concerts and loud recreational items such as snowmobiles, jet skis etc., it is not unreasonable to expect the percentage of the population suffering from some degree of hearing loss to increase. Future marketing plans for this group will have to take hearing impairment into consideration if they want this educated, demanding and affluent age group to patronize their businesses. This group represents millions of people and billions of dollars.

Noise actually has adverse effects for everyone. As part of New York City's much lauded "quality of life" anti-crime campaign, out of 1279 calls to a special telephone number, 545 calls (over 40%) were noise complaints. Complaints about panhandlers, prostitutes, public drunkenness and other "quality of life" crimes did not garner even 100 calls. The effect of noise even has an impact on child development. A study by Purdue University Psychologist Theodore Wachs found that children coming from highly noisy households have delayed language developmental skills and increased anxiety. This could be the same sort of anxiety suffered by the hard of hearing. Children living under the flight path of a New York City airport have more trouble reading and more difficulty recognizing and understanding spoken words, according Cornell University research. The noise interferes with their ability to learn vowels just as the hearing impaired have difficulty distinguishing between certain sounds with high background noise.

Last week I took my hearing aids to the mall to be serviced. The music in the mall, amplified by the hearing aids, was so loud and so unpleasant that I took the hearing aids off. When I got to the Hearing Center, there was a mall sound system speaker just outside the door and, inside the store, the mall's music was still so loud I had difficulty hearing the receptionist and she, a person with normal hearing, had difficulty hearing me. I suggested to her that they ask the mall management to "turn it down" and she told me they had made such a request several times.

This type of attitude and lack of concern on the part of this Mall management and of the many other businesses and individuals creating noise is beginning to have organized opposition. Noise pollution has become such a problem in this country that people are organizing to at least contain and hopefully reduce noise to help the hearing impaired and others deal with an increasingly noisy environment. This includes organizations such as the LEAGUE FOR THE HARD OF HEARING ( in New York City; NOISE POLLUTION CLEARINGHOUSE ( in Montpelier, Vermont; RIGHT TO QUIET SOCIETY ( in Vancouver, BC; and SOUND RIGHTS (P.O. Box 4665, Seattle, WA 98104). DEAF WEB WASHINGTON has a web site ( with an 11 page listing of organizations to help the hard of hearing.

The list is surprisingly long and a visit to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse site can put you in touch with many groups concerned with noise issues. In London, Toronto and other cities, people have formed "Pipedown" groups to pressure businesses and government agencies to address the problem of loud background music and other noise pollution. People in Toronto pass cards on to business managers saying, "Your loud music drove me out! I will not return until you turn the music down or off." To be fair, they also pass out cards to businesses with a quiet ambiance to encourage them to keep it that way. In Vancouver, a massive review of noise problems, laws, and potential solutions resulted in a sweeping list of recommendations for legislation and other actions to help provide a quieter environment.

People wish to ensure some degree of tranquility in their life. They may fear becoming hearing disabled from the growing cacophony of our current environment. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 138 million Americans live in areas where noise exceeds the maximum recommended level for protection from annoyance and disruption of ordinary day to day activities. There are many people who feel that they are not getting the help from the government (city, county, state or Federal) that they reasonably expect.

The Americans With Disabilities Act has made life a lot easier for millions of people since it was passed in 1990, but there is one group that the Act hasn't helped a lot ...those who are hard of hearing. Hearing loss is a poorly understood disability that afflicts a larger percentage of the population than any other single disability and possibly as many as almost all other disabilities put together. The number of people who are hard of hearing is not restricted to old folks. Millions of children have hearing loss. So many teens are paying with their hearing for rock concerts, boom boxes and Walkmans that concerned parents are seeking help from H.E.A.R, (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers According to the newsletter of the Right to Quiet Society in Vancouver, "Some estimates in France suggest 20% of 18-year-olds now suffer hearing damage, compared with 9% just 9 years ago." These figures prompted the Deputies of the French National Assembly to vote to place a limit on the peak output of Walkman type personal stereos. Back in my music business days, we had young sound technicians who could not really do their job due to hearing loss. They drove concert attendees out of the concert halls because the sound level was too high and they didn't realize it. Their extended exposure to high sound levels gave them temporary hearing loss that eventually, for many, developed into permanently impaired hearing.

For those afflicted with hearing loss, functioning in today's loud music world has become a real challenge. They have to be selective in where they shop, where they eat, where they go for entertainment. At the Institute for Perception Research in Holland it was reported that even "a negligible hearing loss may handicap the hearing impaired listener considerably, at least in a noise environment". Often you can see special parking near the door for the handicapped. You see ramps to the door for wheel chairs and elevator buttons set down low and identified in Braille, extra wide dressing room doors, special stalls in the rest rooms and many more amenities. They are there not because the business wanted to do it, but because the Americans With Disabilities Act required them to do it.

Because businesses don't seem to realize that 80 % of their customers won't even be aware of the music (as in Gatwick Airport) and the majority of those who are aware will not like it, businesses then install speakers in every nook and cranny and they blast their customers. Not the old, innocuous Muzak instrumentals that you're not sure you even hear, but with loud vocal music that can't help but be heard. Sometimes they even steal a pirated radio signal, and don't pay ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) royalties for the music. That's illegal but that's another story.

Do these noisy businesses locate cash registers facing the customers so they can see transactions as the ADA requires? Not always. Do they provide any sort of hearing assistance? Only in newer theaters where the sound levels will often reach 110 or 120 decibels (a jet plane produces 100 decibels taking off) and only the almost deaf need any help hearing. This, of course, is done only because the ADA requires it though it is presented to the public as just another of the special amenities they are proud to offer. Making matters worse are retailers who have their own music suppliers, such as Dillard's, where they periodically get new tapes which are added to their "music library", with old or damaged tapes being discarded. Not all of the old tapes are discarded, however, and there are sometimes dramatic differences between the sound levels on these tapes so that if the sound is adjusted during a "quiet" tape, one of the "hotter" tapes can still really boom. A few businesses have individual volume controls on each speaker in their store so that they can fine tune them to the current conditions in that particular area but most have only one master control with subsequent loud and quiet spots in the establishment.

Whether the problem is just a few loud spots or loud music all over the place, it doesn't appear that the problem is going to go away until the public demands it, so here are a few suggestions. To those who drafted the ADA: Take a look at this problem and see if you can't make some changes in the law to provide relief to this handicapped minority. To those individuals, whether hearing impaired or not, who object to this noise being forced on you and possibly augmenting your handicap, don't let them get away with it! These people are polluting the air with their noise and infringing on both your ability and your right to communicate. What good is free speech if it can't be heard? If the music is too loud, complain to the management. If you get no satisfaction, LEAVE AND TELL THEM YOU WON'T BE BACK. Write a letter to the editor and the mayor and your city council. Complain to the home offices of the business and to your local Environmental Health department. Write your U. S. Senator--that's where the legislation could come from to control this problem. Be assertive and don't give up.

Mr. Frazier welcomes comments, questions, and ideas from interested readers. You may write to him by e-mail at:

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