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MUZAK: Music to Whose Ears?

A brief overview of research commissioned by The Royal National Institute for Deaf People, December 1998

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The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID)
19-23 Featherstone Street
London EC1Y 8SL, UK
Tel: voice 0808 808 0123, text 0808 808 900, fax: 020 7296 8199

Issued 14 December 1998


The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) commissioned NOP to carry out extensive research into what people think about background music, which is played in public places such as shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels. For many people background music, or ‘muzak" as it is commonly known, is both irritating and frustrating. For the UK’s 8.7 million deaf and hard of hearing people background muzak often causes pain, discomfort and unnecessary distress.

In order to highlight these issues, RNID recently asked their members and the general public to tell them what they really think about muzak. The organisation wants to make people aware of the problems muzak causes, thus warning businesses that the playing of such music can actually be bad for business. It is actively encouraging people to complain.

The findings of the research have provided an interesting insight into the growing phenomenon that is increasingly intruding into our everyday lives.

What is muzak?

Muzak is background music played in public places shops, supermarkets, pubs, restaurants/cafes, hotels, on travel bulletins, TV programmes and piped down the telephone.

A few facts

What do people feel about it?

“I try and avoid shops in which music is played. I am there to shop and if I wanted to listen to music I would do so at home where I am able to set the volume of sound to what I require.

Sadly, this is a common view shared by the majority of people who wear hearing aids. Research found that 86% of hard of hearing people(1) find muzak annoying whilst a third of the general public (2) in the NOP survey also expressed their dislike of it. When put alongside the fact that 36% of the general public(2) say they never notice background music it becomes very pertinent to question the value of playing muzak in public places.

Clearly many people dislike muzak. However, spare a thought for staff who work in environments which play background music. In the six weeks running up to Christmas, staff doing an average 40-hour week will hear ‘Jingle Bells’ an average of 320 times if the Christmas music is on a 45-minute loop system!

Interestingly, age plays a significant factor in how a person feels about muzak. Nearly half of the general public between 45- 54 years find muzak annoying compared to 21% of 15-24 year olds (2). This suggests that young people are more content with noise in public places reaffirming the belief that generally the world is becoming a noisier place. For hearing aid users, this is worrying news.


Why is muzak such a problem for deaf and hard of hearing people?

“I cannot hear background music. The only complaint I have is that background music can make it hard for hearing people to understand my imperfect Speech.”

For hard of hearing people, background noise of any kind can be a major annoyance because it drowns out the most important sounds such as speech and announcements. Even a small amount of hearing loss means background noise makes it very difficult to follow what other people are saying. Most hearing aids amplify all sounds equally which means that speech and background music become very hard to distinguish; something our ears do automatically. For deaf people, muzak can be just as problematic as they find it more difficult for hearing people to be able to understand and hear their speech.

Does geography and social class make a difference?

Quite clearly yes. It appears that the wealthier you are and the area of the country in which a person lives affects how they feel about muzak. Research(2) revealed that 51% of people in social group AB expressed their dislike of muzak compared to 26% in social group DE. As stores struggle to retain customers during the recession, they would be wise to stop playing muzak. Those with more spending power tend to dislike muzak the most.

Interestingly people living in London and the Home Counties are nearly twice as likely to find muzak annoying compared to people living in the Tyne Tees area, suggesting again that economic wealth has a bearing on people’s views. Generally, people living in the south dislike muzak more (42% compared to 30% in the north).


Where is muzak most annoying?

“I avoid any shop, supermarket or public place with loud background music. I try to avoid train stations like the plague. Airports and aircraft are almost as bad.’

The vast majority of people (hearing and hard of hearing) who found muzak annoying felt that shops, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes were most often the worst places for background music. Generally restaurants were worse for hard of hearing people who felt excluded from conversations or were unable even to hear the restaurant staff.

There were interesting differences between the men and women surveyed by NOP, suggesting that men spend more time in restaurants and that women spend more time in supermarkets. 31% of women compared to 18% of men said muzak was most often a problem in supermarkets. The results were reversed with restaurants and cafes with 17% of women and 29% of men(2). However, amongst RNID members, the views of men and women were very similar. For hard of hearing people, muzak is a problem in any situation.

Muzak is not just a problem in public places. For hard of hearing people the frustrations are increasingly extending into their homes. One area which caused significant annoyance to people with a hearing loss, was background music on television and radio. It spoilt their enjoyment of programmes or ability to follow what was going on.


General public people most annoyed by shops (60%), supermarkets (57%), and restaurants (55%)(2)

RNID members most annoyed by restaurants (78%) followed by shops (70%) and radio/TV/cinema (68%)(1).

Does Christmas music make a difference?

"Shops and supermarkets are always too loud, even more so at Christmas time.”

For producers of muzak, Christmas time is a Mecca of music. For people with hearing loss, their frustration is not dictated by season or style.

Just over a quarter of the general public(2) and two-thirds of RNID members found Christmas music annoying. However, on the whole, Christmas music was looked upon more favourably than muzak. The older people get, the less likely they are to find Christmas music annoying in comparison with muzak. Nevertheless, almost one in 10 of 55-64 year olds hated Christmas music.(2)

Social class also makes a difference as more than double of those in the professional classes (36%) compared to those on lower incomes (16%) found Christmas music annoying.(2) It is interesting that whilst the national picture shows deaf and hard of hearing people, in the RNID survey, are a quarter more likely to find Christmas music annoying than the general public, this figure rises to double or triple the general public’s views when broken down into TV regions.

More than two-thirds of hearing and hard of hearing people who found Christmas music annoying felt it was worse in shops, supermarkets and eateries.


Regional breakdowns

There are strong regional variations and a clear North/South divide for some questions.

% of people who find muzak annoying?

(national averages NOP 34% /RNID MEMBERS 80%)

West Country40%85%
HTV/Harlech (Wales)29%82%
Tyne Tees24%90%
UK Total34%80%

There is a North/South split but not as pronounced for members re-affirming that hard of hearing members have a problem with muzak regardless of where they are. Members were more solidly against muzak regardless of region and were two or three times more likely to hate muzak. Carlton and the West Country scored highly in both surveys, suggesting that southerners hate muzak more than northerners. However, those with hearing loss in the Tyne Tees area gave the highest score against muzak (90%).

% of people who find Christmas music annoying?

(national averages NOP 27% RNID MEMBERS 64%)

West Country37%76%
HTV/Harlech (VVales)21%68%
Tyne Tees18%62%
UK TotaI27%64%

On the whole, most people had less of a problem with Christmas music than muzak. Even so, two thirds of people who found it annoying said Christmas music was worst in shops or supermarkets. People in Ulster found Christmas music to be most annoying in supermarkets with a massive vote of 92%.

In the North, people were equally annoyed by muzak as by Christmas music, whereas Southerners were more annoyed by muzak. RNID members were more likely to be annoyed by muzak than by Christmas music regardless of where they lived.

Where is muzak an annoyance?

West Country75%70%65%63%82%72%
HTV/Harlech (Wales)55%72%47%73%48%83%
Tyne Tees67%66%72%63%29%76%

The vast majority of people in both surveys who found muzak annoying found shops, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes to be the worst culprits for muzak and background noise in general. People in Ulster and London equally voted restaurants and cafes as the most annoying place, reinforced by the views of AB professionals who found muzak more of an annoyance than those with less spending power.


Two quantitative research surveys were carried out. The experiences and views of the general population were gathered via a telephone omnibus survey conducted between 30 October and 1 November 1998. In total 1,002 people in England, Wales and Scotland (not Northem Ireland) were interviewed by NOP OMNIBUS on behalf of RNID.

The other element of the quantitative work was a postal survey sent to 3,200 members of RNID. Before the closing date a total of 1,260 completed questionnaires were received of which 300 expressed a wish to support the campaign further by speaking to national and regional media. Such an impressive response rate (two- fifths) has ensured that the results, which were analysed by NSM Research, are an accurate and authoritative portrayal of the views of deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people throughout the UK who are RNID members.

The final element of the research was qualitative. Members surveyed were able to add comments and their own personal stories if they so wished. The vast majority of them did so.


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